World War 2, Auschwitz and Coventry Cathedral

World War II a human tragedy of immense proportion is a historical event that has always terrified yet fascinated me. The Holocaust is a history of enduring torture and sorrow. Six million Jews and millions of others, including gypsies, homosexuals, children and both mentally and physically disabled people were annihilated by those working under the immoral Nazi regime, led by Adolf Hitler. The sickening amount of evidence, archives and photographs recorded by the Nazi’s, which showcase their terrible crimes against humanity are horrific. I feel humanity, as a whole will never fully come to grips to the entirety of this brutal calamity of global proportion.

I certainly haven’t. Anyone with a sense of mutual care for humanity, with any spark of human concern, can’t help but ponder: Who knew? What did they know? Why and how did it go so far? Or better yet, why didn’t they kill themselves when they found out? Questions, upon questions, however insane, remain to torment my mind amidst arguments of morality; guilt and responsibility in relation to the crimes committed by the Nazi’s, all flooding back thanks to this site-specific task.

My maternal grandfather, Frank Klar, born and raised in Munich, was a young boy when my great-grandparents decided to flee Germany during Nazi occupation. I often wonder how much my great-grandparents knew. Why flee? Did they feel a sense of guilt or shame? Did they want to run away from the terrible truth? What would I have done?

Unfortunately, my maternal side of the family had all deceased before my birth bringing a premature end to that chapter. None the less, it always makes me think of the German perspective of World War II, the German civilians of that time and whether they knew or whether they were completely isolated from the events. I ponder whether this heavy sense of secrecy, which still occupies many of the older generation of Germans today, would have been evident in my own great-grandparents…I guess I’ll never know.

My morbid fascination surrounding World War II was heightened when I visited Auschwitz in 2010 as a part of my Philosophy class. During World War II Auschwitz became the largest site for the murder of the Jews brought there under the Nazi plan for their extermination. More than 1,100,000 men, women, and children lost their lives in the concentration camp.

Photographs  © Sophie Moet

I visited concentration camps: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau on Monday 23rd February 2010 and flew back to Coventry the same day. The day was bizarre. We walked round in small groups on a guided tour, overlapping with other visitors of the camps. To ensure we gained all the information from the guide we were all given headsets, which were connected, to the guides speaking device.

Here are some points I’ve upgraded from notes I jotted down in a notebook whilst walking round the camp:

  • The sheer size of Auschwitz is astonishing.
  • It’s bitterly cold and deep in snow.
  • I feel guilty for saying ‘I’m cold!’
  • The gas chamber is smaller than I expected, short in height, smell of decay.
  • Silence.
  • Strong sense of Jewish presence, rather than German.
  • The evidence of Nazi crimes is terrible.
  • Photographs of Jewish arrivals.
  • Jewish hangings.
  • The spacious room outlined with a glass cabinet filled with the hair of the Jews.

‘The Germans would use a blunt blade, cutting the Jew’s scalps’

  • The room filled with Auschwitz prisoner mug shots, ceiling to floor. Name, Number, Weight upon arrival, Weight at the camp, Amount of time spent at Auschwitz, D.O.B, Date of Death, ‘extremely efficient’
  • Art made by prisoners, 6,000
  • The Museum collections: 110 thousand shoes, 3,800 suitcases, 2,100 include names of their owners. A suitcase with the name ‘Klar’ like my grandfather’s…spooky. 350 striped camp garments.

There’s a lot more I could say about my experiences, looking through my notes and photographs are helpful in bringing back memories of that day but my experience is quite hazy. However, one thing did stick out for me.

Without having to look back at my notes or photographs, I vividly remember my reaction to life around the camp, in particular the Pizza parlour straight across the road from the concentration camp. It was the wondering people going about their lives, filling up their cars with gas in a nearby garage, snacking on sandwiches and women wearing handbags. I don’t know why but I found that these daily goings on were strange for some reason, “How can a pizza business be across the road from a death camp?” At which my teacher responded, “Well Coventry was affected during the war too, but that doesn’t stop you from going out to Pizza Hut does it?” She was right, why should life stop for something that happened in the past?

Similarly to Coventry, the day-to-day life of the people nearby Auschwitz isn’t one of contempt or hatred for the Nazi’s, but one of determination and peace. Feelings the people of Coventry demonstrated after The Blitz in 1940. And now I’ve reached the point of focusing on a certain area within my first chosen location: Coventry Cathedral.

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