Yesterday on the radio were several references both in the news and in documentaries that the 27th January 2015 was the 70th anniversary of the day that Russian forces liberated Auschwitz.
I cannot begin to fully imagine the horrors the people in Auschwitz and all the other camps like it across German occupied Europe witnessed and endured. And I do not believe that this chapter in man’s history should ever be forgotten.
It was in 1967 when I was thirteen that I was fortunate enough to go on a school tour of Europe. This was a huge adventure. Away from home with classmates and trusted to behave as adults by the teachers who could not constantly supervise us. Our first night was in Rheims where we managed to win bottles of very cheap champagne at a funfair in the square across from the hotel. Other nights in Lyon and then on to Austria. Into Switzerland where our hotel overlooked a lake where on the opposite side we could clearly see the peak of the Matterhorn. Into Germany where we stayed in Munich.
Up until we arrived in Munich our trip had been a living geography lesson as we passed through the ever changing countryside. One of our escort teachers was also our geography teacher. He gave us a constant commentary on the geography of what we were seeing from the coach windows.
One morning in Munich at the hotel we were told that as there was not much time that all of us should only have a very quick and light breakfast. Soon, we were on our way in the coach but none of us had a clue as to where we were going.
We arrived at Dachau.
Before we got off the coach one teacher explained where we were. I think we could understand some of the implications of what he was telling us. In hindsight no amount of words could actually prepare us for what we were about to see and absorb in our own very personal ways.
The first impression I had when stepping off of the warm coach on to the gravel of the car park was of a cold silence. There seemed to be acres of ground covered with gravel. No grass. No trees. Just gravel and a powerful silence. Not even birdsong coming from any distant trees or from overhead as birds flew past. Just cold, cold silence.
A coach pulled up near us and its passengers got out. Some of them were nuns and I can remember seeing one of them physically breakdown on the gravel and weep. I had never seen such a raw expression of emotion from one single person.
Further on across the car park there were concrete slabs which had been the foundations of the wooden huts used as accommodation for the prisoners. They looked almost white in the late winter sun.
We gathered outside a hut. This had been left deliberately to house the beginnings of a museum to the dark deeds that had happened here up until only twenty two years ago. Graphic black and white images of skeletal forms barely recognisable as people either standing or huddling in the cold, being brutalised or being slung into open graves.
The hut was made out of crudely cut wood stained dark brown. There were a few bunks left. They seemed to be made from the same crude wood as the rest of the building. And there was small a latrine block. Just a few seats for hundreds of prisoners crammed into the hut.
We were taken on to the gas chambers disguised as showers and saw the ovens. By that time I at least was over loaded with horror and really could not take much more in.
The silence that nature had invoked around the camp pervaded all the visitors. All that could be heard were just a few mutterings and the sound of feet slowly moving around the site. Perhaps this was a ghost of the all too recent past still echoing across the site.
Our teachers kept us close together and they probably kept a close eye on us to see how we were reacting. I don’t know how each of us reacted internally and what thoughts were going through our minds. Those reactions and thoughts at the time were very private.
Forty eight years on from that visit when I heard the stories of the survivors of Auschwitz; memories of that visit to Dachau returned vividly and played across my mind. I have never forgotten that visit. It is always there lurking in a recess until something levers it out. It could be a news clip, a history documentary or even on a train watching the sun glint off of the cold steel rails and wondering what on earth was going through the minds of those people being transported to the camps.
I had a serious conversation with a colleague who is younger than me and has two daughters. One of thirteen and one of ten. We got on to the subject of the death camps and I explained my experience to him. He had also done a school tour and had been taken to one of the camps. We found we had very similar feelings that had stayed with us all those years.
All of the Auschwitz survivors on the radio yesterday asked that what happened is never forgotten.
I can never forget what I saw. I hope that goes someway to making sure this part of history is never forgotten. My colleague will never forget either. He has vowed that when his daughters are old enough to cope emotionally that he will take them to see one of the camps so that they too can carry forward the memory to the next generation.
Please, never forget.