By Eloise Bratt, pupil at King Solomon High School.
Walking under the brick watchtower, I couldn’t help but contemplate the millions of innocent Jews who had come here seven decades before me.
The difference was I was walking here a free person, and I was going to walk back out. This summer, with 30 other Jewish year 12 students and the headteacher of King Solomon High School in Barkingside, Spencer Lewis, I set out to Poland to walk in our ancestors’ footsteps.
However, this trip was very different for me. My name is Eloise Bratt, granddaughter of Ivor Perl, an Auschwitz survivor. While friends, teachers and acquaintances wandered the ghostly grounds of Birkenau, pondering who was once sent here, I could not shake the thought of my grandfather from my mind. As I looked towards the thousands of acres filled with bunkers not fit for livestock, I could not piece together how this place was ever allowed to function.
This was where my grandfather, along with his brothers, sisters and parents waited to die. If you saw my grandfather (pictured with Eloise, left) walking down the street, you would think him an ordinary old man. But if you knew his history, the things that happened to him almost 70 years ago, it would haunt you. Walking past two ruins, bricks bundled high, I learned this was where the infamous Zyklon B was used to exterminate thousands of Jews, including my great-aunts and uncles.
The two ruins had been gas chambers. In Auschwitz I felt somehow different from the way I did in Birkenau. Not because my grandfather was not held there, but because of its museum feel. The camp has been completely reconstructed with glass cages, ‘No photography’ signs and the distinctive smell of wet paint. The exception to this is probably one of the most notorious symbols to emerge from the Holocaust, the gates displaying the motto Arbeit Macht Frei – work makes you free.
Staring up at the sign, which we had studied and observed in photographs for months prior to our visit to Poland, made the whole experience seem totally surreal. As I mentioned, we went to Poland in summer so the weather was extremely hot. You would think if we were going to visit Auschwitz that we would go in the winter to get a clearer feeling for what it was like, but we wanted to get a different perspective from visitors who do go there during the colder months.
We had heard stories about the extreme cold weather that is felt in the winter in Poland, but I don’t think it can be worse than the scorching heat we experienced on our visit. As we went inside the bunkers of Auschwitz II, it was impossible to ignore the humidity. We could not stand in these small buildings for more than five minutes before we needed a gulp of water or simply to get out of such confined spaces.
Put together with the intense cold shown in photographs of Auschwitz on the internet, it was difficult not to be shocked by the extreme weather conditions the prisoners had to face day in and day out, year after year. As we walked along the train tracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we found it extremely overwhelming to try to take in everything and reflect on what these Jewish people must have felt. When we got to the end of the train tracks, my school and I gathered in a semi-circle with Israeli flags and together we sung Hatikvah.
At this moment in my life, I never felt more proud to be Jewish. Lighting a Yahrzeit candle after this, in memory of my family and the Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust, was my most distinct memory from my trip to Poland. We visited other memorable sites, but focusing on Auschwitz in this article was what was most important to me, as it is close to home, something to which I have a deep connection and something I can never forget.