Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

By Maelis Goodstein, Year 12

I am half Jewish, half Christian, but only ethnically Jewish. I don’t practice the religion and I don’t even really feel connected to the religion. My last name just happens to be Goodstein. In fact, I went to a Catholic school for four years and I’ve done all my sacraments. I just don’t know too much about the Jewish side of my family. But if I had been alive during World War II, I would’ve been considered a Jew. This scares me because it’s not something that defines me, but I would’ve been punished.

I was part of a large group of Year 12 students from various international schools in Switzerland, including La Châtaigneraie, who went on a study trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and museum last Wednesday, November 14th. This study trip was organised by la Coordination Intercommunautaire contre l’Antisémitisme et la Diffamation (CICAD). We were given tours of both Auschwitz and Birkenau – visiting the grounds and the exhibitions.

At Auschwitz, one room contained an enormous book, filled with the names of concentration camp prisoners that died within those camps. I searched for the name “Goodstein,” not knowing what I would find and I ended up finding someone with my family name, from Hungary, that had died. I remember feeling a shock wave and then immediately crying. I can’t even imagine what this person must’ve gone through. It’s so hard to wrap your head around the fact that humans did this to each other. It’s sickening honestly. I was so upset I didn’t bother to search for the name “Schwartzberg” – my cousin’s last name.

The book of names – an 8,000 page memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Another thing that really struck me was when we walked through a still-standing crematorium. When we walked into the room with the ovens, I couldn’t look at them. I kept imagining the bodies burning within and it was too much for me. On and on we went, into rooms filled with the hair of corpses, piles of clothing and shoes of both adults and children, and even casts and prosthetics taken away from the disabled. Some exhibitions showed starved prisoners – literal skeletons.

Our tour guide gave us information that I’d never heard before. Normally, she explained to us, there would have been corpses scattered everywhere throughout the camp and the children were the ones who were forced to clean up the bodies. Prisoners were only allowed to use to the toilet once a day and they had five seconds in which to use it. If they didn’t get out in time, they’d be punished. If they soiled their uniforms, they’d be punished. In the children’s barracks, the adults painted murals on the walls for the children, to remind them of the world outside of this horror – to remind the children that there was still a glimmer of hope.

This was a profoundly intense, sad and painful experience overall, but it was worth it. Most people know about Auschwitz and how horrible Nazi concentration camps were, but it impacts you so much more when you’re actually visiting the camp. Even now, reflecting on the experience makes me emotional. More importantly, it makes me realize how crucial it is  for people to learn about and visit such places given the rise of the extreme right in our world today. Those of us who have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau have a moral obligation to be “un porteur de mémoire” – a memory bearer in order to ensure that history never repeats itself.

Last week the Update conducted an interview with Marion Deichmann, survivor of the Holocaust, with Maelis as interviewer, which you can watch here.

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