Memories of Auschwitz

Friday, January 27, 2012

Consider what you see and hear around you, and use your voices to Speak Up against hatred and discrimination.
Holocaust Memorial Day 27-01-2012
Arbeit Macht Frei "Work Brings Freedom"

When I think of the Holocaust, the first thing that comes into my head is the number '6 million'. In all the books I've read and films I've watched about the holocaust, that number has stuck in my head. Such an enormous figure is hard to imagine when I think of it in terms of people - men, women and children. 6 million people murdered in concentration and extermination camps, ghettos and mass-shootings. Hitler's regime murdered Jews from countries all over Europe as well as physically and mentally disabled people, homosexuals, gypsies, political prisoners and those involved in resistance movements.

Why this day?
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27th January because it was on this day in 1945 that Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau - the largest Nazi killing camp. Here, 1.1 million people were murdered. Holocaust Memorial Day is one day in the year when we can reflect on our lives and think about those 6 million people who lost their lives as a result of Nazi persecution. It is also a day when we can spare a thought for those who lost their lives or whose lives were altered forever in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

My Experience of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau
I visited Auschwitz during winter. I crunched around in the snow until I got to the gated entrance to Auschwitz where I felt quite awkward watching the sheer number of tourists about to embark on group tours. I immediately separated myself from them, trying to rid myself of the idea that Auschwitz was some kind of tourist attraction. But thinking about it now, I suppose it is. The fact that so many people come from all over the world daily to visit this 'attraction' shows us the enormous impact it has had the world over. Having seen it with my own eyes, I feel particularly strongly that everyone who has the means should visit Auschwitz or another Nazi camp at some point in their lives. Auschwitz I is a maze of camp blocks and barracks, all surrounded by barbed wire and overlooked by giant guard towers. It was originally a Polish military camp but when the Nazis came they turned it into a prisoners camp. Scull and cross bone signs dug into the ground threaten those who dare to wander too close to the barbed wire to 'Halt!' It was here that the first Auschwitz camps were opened and where they tested the lethal Zyklon-B (used in the gas chambers to kill people). It was also here where the Nazis conducted experiments on prisoners and carried out executions. Several of the blocks are open to the public and as you walk into each room you are surrounded by floor to ceiling huge collections of personal possessions from those who came to Auschwitz. Among the items were 3,800 suitcases, 40 kg of glasses and 110,000 shoes. One room held two tons of human hair. These rooms were probably the most moving and as you can imagine, it was an emotional experience.
Block 11 - The Death Block
Block 11 was known as the 'Death Block'. It was here that prisoners suspected by the camp gestapo of carrying out clandestine activities were held (attempting to escape/organising mutinies/contact with outside world). They were generally brutally interrogated before being shot. For a time this block also held the Sonderkommando (the special unit of prisoners who were forced to burn bodies). Going down into the basement, I saw four standing punishment cells so small (1 square metre each) that it was hard not to visualise four prisoners confined in each cell for the night before having to go to work in the morning. The only source of air was a 5 x 5cm opening covered with a piece of metal. There were also dark cells which prisoners were confined to for days or even weeks, this was the way the SS put people to death by starvation. The SS carried out an experiment here with Zyklon-B which led to the mass killing of thousands of people in the gas chambers. Between 3-5th September in 1941 600 Soviet POWs and 250 Polish political prisoners were selected from the camp infirmary to act as guinea pigs.
'Death Wall' in the walled-off yard of block 11
'Death Wall' - It was here that a firing squad would shoot prisoners.
Camp blocks

Barbed wire fence
"The first to perish were the children, abandoned orphans, The World's best, the bleak earth's brightest. These children from the orphanages might have been our comfort. From these sad, mute, bleak faces our new dawn might have risen"
(Auschwitz Birkenau)

Deportations arrived by train
A short bus or taxi ride away lies the remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau. At this camp, approximately one million European Jews were murdered. In 1944 over 100,000 prisoners (Jews, Poles, Roma and others) were here, housed in 300 wooden barracks. The camp holds the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria. My experience here was somewhat different. It was a vast expanse of space (200 hectares of grounds), blanketed in thick snow from the bitter Polish winter. The cold seemed to penetrate through six layers of clothes and three pairs of socks to reach my bones. All I could think about was how perishing the cold was (-10), and how prisoners were made to walk around in freezing temperatures wearing next to nothing.

After a while, the people drift away, the coaches drive away and all that is left is the sound of the icy air whizzing past you and the feeling that you are not alone. It was eerie, bleak and when I realised I was the last person left, somewhat terrifying. However, though it may sound strange, it was one of the most peaceful moments in time I have ever experienced. It was pure stillness. Nothing moved, nothing sounded - not even the birds.

I may be just one person out of millions who have visited Auschwitz, and I probably had a similar experience to others but I feel I took away something unique - something I haven't got from reading books about the Holocaust. And that is hope. Hope that by people, young and old, coming to Auschwitz and seeing with their own eyes the atrocities that were carried out here, it will give us a truer understanding of what human beings are capable of in extreme situations. Hatred and discrimination for whatever reason should never be tolerated under any circumstances. This message written on a plaque at Auschwitz-Birkenau sums up the way I feel perfectly:
"For ever let this place be a cry of despair. And a warning to humanity. Where the Nazis murdered about one a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe".
"I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented". Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor.

Make a pledge now to challenge the language of hatred and commit to using words which reflect respect for the dignity of those around you.

Itchy Feet? Need Some Inspiration?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Manchester EventCity 19 - 22 January 2012 London Earls Court 2 - 5 February 2012
"Do you love discovering new cultures, indulging in unfamiliar foods, and learning about different countries? Destinations 2012 is here to provide you with fresh ideas and information with hundreds of exhibitors including tour operators and cruise companies to guide you to the holiday of a lifetime".

The perfect place to get some inspiration for holidays in 2012 and beat those winter blues! The show will feature a range of exhibitors, celebrity speakers, explorers, historians and news correspondents. There will also be a range of cultural performances taking place on the Entertainment Stage.

The Manchester show will host performances from Manchester School of Samba, Red Fan Chinese Dance Society as well as African drumming and Egyptian, Ukrainian, Cuban and Punjabi dancing. In addition, Tropical Inc will be bringing along a selection of animals including meerkats, skunks, snakes and macaws!

It's disappointing that whilst there are no fewer than 13 celebrity speakers, explorers, historians and news correspondents booked for the London show as well as the Amateur Photographer Travel Photography Theatre; there are only 4 speakers and no photography theatre for the Manchester show. Alas, us folk up north will have to make do with what we've got...perhaps Sir Trevor McDonald OBE and others will make the journey up to Manchester next year...

If you're a Manchester Confidential reader you can claim free tickets. Lonely Planet magazine readers can also pick up free tickets in this month's edition.

Forget The Resolutions, Just Enjoy It!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

2012: A New Year...A Time for Resolutions!
Well, maybe for some. I myself haven’t bothered to go as far as making any new year’s resolutions as I can’t think of a reason why I would want to make myself miserable or disappointed in a few weeks or months time when I fail to keep them. A New Year is just another year in our lives and we can make it a good year or an even better year than the last; or we can just continue the way we were at one minute to 12 on New Year’s Eve, thus eliminating any unnecessary pressure we might be about to put on ourselves.

When I hear people say things like ‘I’m glad that year’s over and done with, bring on the next’ it makes me quite sad because I for one would rather not wipe the previous year off the table and forget it in its entirety. Even if it was the ‘worst’ year in the history of the world, surely we can always find something that was good, that made us happy and that is worth holding onto.

So for 2012, instead of resolutions, I pledge to enjoy it as much as I can and be as happy as I can for myself and others– even in the face of adversity, setbacks and challenges that may come my way. So let’s break open the champers and have a bloody good year!

January may still be cold but to prevent hibernation, wrap up warm & head outside for a wintry walk...certain to take away those winter blues!

A Wintry Walk in the Lake District

The Sydney Harbour Bridge: The Iron Lung of Australia

Friday, January 6, 2012

7 years and 354 days, 2,500 men, 53,000 tonnes of steel...

"Every day those men went onto the Bridge, they went the same way as a soldier goes into battle, not knowing whether they would come down alive or not." (Lawrence Ennis, Director of Construction, 1932).

"Life Down Under"

It was dark; I hadn't long arrived and I wasn't quite sure where I was when I caught my first glimpse of Sydney. I climbed up a few steps to see the city lit up against the dark, night sky with not a single person around. In my travels, I've often found that the best views are just stumbled upon by chance when the guide book is packed away in your bag. Inside I was bursting with excitement to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but at that moment I was content at taking in the view of the skyscrapers from afar and trying to believe my luck at being in a city I'd dreamed of visiting.
"Under the Bridge"
The next day, I went straight to the Bridge, or the 'Coathanger' as it is also known. It was no ordinary coathanger, that's for sure. There are several places that give terrific views of the Bridge, but the first time I saw it was from The Rocks - an area steeped in historic charm. The Bridge looked majestic in size and beauty and I was surprised to see Sydneysiders taking the ferry to work. Now that is what I call commuting in style!

A Symbol of Australia
Recognised the world over, climbed by 'adrenaline junkies' and photographed by tourists from every nation, the Sydney Harbour Bridge has become a symbol of Australia. More often than not the only images we have in our minds of the Bridge come from glossy holiday brochures and TV programmes promising families a 'better way of life' if they opt to move Down under. Whilst those images have the power to excite even the most unadventurous people, they are just part of a glossy exterior. The Bridge represents the achievement of boiler makers, carpenters, engineers, ironworkers, blacksmiths, painters, electricians, riggers, stonemasons and countless others - many of whom came from Britain. It represents the 800 families who were relocated because they fell in the path of the Bridge. It represents the homes of those 800 families that were demolished with no compensation given to the families. And it represents the sixteen workers who lost their lives during the construction of the Bridge. In October 1929, five years into the construction of the Bridge, the Wall street stock market crashed. The hard times that followed were eased for workers on the Bridge. Individual working hours were reduced to take on more men. The Bridge became aptly nicknamed, 'The Iron Lung' .
"Where Nerve is Needed"...
The sixteen men who died in the construction of the Bridge were rightly recognised and to this day remembered. What should also be remembered is the effects building the bridge had on its workers. Painters regularly suffered from swollen limbs, dizziness and sickness as a result of the 'Bridge Grey' lead-based paints that were thought to provide the best surface cover for the Bridge. Engineers coped with working inside the dark chords with a lack of oxygen; whist dealing with hot and cold/damp steel in summer and winter respectively. Workers outside had to put up with the rain, wind and Australian heat. Sadly, many workers went deaf in later life.
19th March 1932: 750,000 of Sydney's 1 million population came to celebrate the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Today it is still a place where people gather in celebration: most recently to bring in the New Year, 2012.
"Today is the day of days, when political differences are forgotten. New South Wales unites in the glorification of Our Bridge, and added attraction to Our Harbour. The building of this gigantic Bridge is just as much a national milestone as Anzac." (Source: Labor Daily, 1932).

Top 5 Facts
1. It took 272,000 litres of paint to give the Bridge its initial three coats.
2. It took approximately 6,000,000 rivets, the largest weighing 3.5kg.
3. The pylons are 89 metres above mean sea level.
4. The total weight of the steelwork is 52,800 tonnes including the arch and mild steel approach spans.
5. The length of the arch span is 503 metres.
Figures obtained from the Australian Government website (Sourced from: Mackaness, C. (ed.) 2006, Bridging Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney)

Watch this short film, Sydney’s Harbour Bridge Finally Completed (1933) to see the construction of the Bridge in its various stages, and to find out more about life around Sydney Harbour and Circular Quay in the twenties and thirties (Source: Australians At Work. © Film Australia 2005).
Admiring the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House in 2005