Home » Remembrance » Auschwitz and me – Insights From an International Youth Encounter

Auschwitz and me – Insights From an International Youth Encounter

About 80 young people from Germany and its neighbours met in Berlin and travelled to Auschwitz for an international youth encounter organised by the German Bundestag (Parliament). Back home, Julia (18) describes her impressions and reflects what history might teach her.

“It is January 27, 2015. Complete silence fills the plenary hall of the German Bundestag. All eyes focus on the clarinettist Ib Hausmann who is carefully moving his instrument to his lips. A soft deep note begins to resonate, slowly gaining in intensity. A net of sonority extends from these lonely, helpless and despairing notes that takes me back to the place where I was, only two days ago: The concentration camp memorial Auschwitz – Birkenau – symbol of the most atrocious crime against humanity.

Auschwitz Memorial – A Place Which Puts You in Fear and Fright

Visit to the concentration camp memorial Auschwitz | Photo: DBT/ von Saldern

Visit to the concentration camp memorial Auschwitz | Photo: DBT/ von Saldern

It is January 25, 2015. My head and face are deeply buried in my hooded jacket as I wearily walk along the trodden downpaths of the expansive area. Snowflakes have replaced the drizzling rain that accompanied us in the morning. The bitter cold pierces through my layers of clothes, the several layers of socks, my three sweaters. And yet, the temperatures here in Poland have not even yet broken any winter record. I instinctively think of all the thinly dressed prisoners who must have suffered from the cold to an extent we cannot even remotely imagine, and I feel ashamed. I continue walking together with the participants of the youth encounter of the German Bundestag (Lower House of German Parliament) in commemoration of the victims of National Socialism (about 80 young people from 13 different nations).

Humanity’s Darkest Moments

We stop here and there to slip into the barracks, the so-called housings for the prisoners. Humidity and darkness hit us. Hard cots meant to serve as beds. The lower bunks were more advantageous because from there it was easier to get to the guard calls in time, Marian Turski, one of the Auschwitz survivors and witnesses was to explain in a panel discussion two days later. Our route leads along the whole area that seems incredible in its dimensions. Barracks and even more barracks, open meadows, muster grounds, relics of the crematories.

It often says in literature that the horror of Auschwitz founders on his presentability. But particularly when you stand in front of the rail tracks where the cattle cars stopped, in front of the place where it was decided whether a person would live or die, it is here where deep fear and terror start to take possession of you. My eyes wander to the right. This is where people were sent who were considered strong enough to work. My eyes wander to the left. This is where people were eliminated from society, degraded to useless objects. Left, right, I hear in my head, left, right. Life, death.

Struggling to Make Sense

While we proceed I try to store and save all my impressions, pictures and thoughts in my head, but I am unable to do so. I do not know what to think, how to put any of all this into words, what to feel. A deep sadness has taken hold of me, numbs me, numbs my mind and my feelings. Then a new thought occurs to me. Maybe my reaction is only too natural. Maybe you can only comprehend Auschwitz by not comprehending it. The suffering, the terror and fears of Auschwitz are beyond our comprehension, are beyond our powers of imagination. What we see, what we hear in Auschwitz nowadays can only be a tiny particle of an unimaginable extent of suffering; its scope we cannot explain and we cannot fully grasp.

A First-Hand Encounter with a Holocaust Survivor

The Holocaust survivor Zofia Posmysz | Photo: DBT/ von Saldern

The Holocaust survivor Zofia Posmysz | Photo: DBT/ von Saldern

It is January 26, 2015. We meet 91-year-old Zofia Posmysz. The Gestapo had arrested her. She had been deported to Auschwitz on the grounds of illegal activities in the underground when she was only 18 years old. Zofia Posmysz returned after the war when her mother urged her to accompany her to their place of martyrdom. „You must never go there again“, her mother advised her after their visit. „You have to forget this place.“ But Zofia Posmysz did return. And now we have gathered here, a group of about 80 young people from 13 different nations commemorating all the victims of the dictatorship of the National Socialists.


27th January – Remembrance Hour

It is January 27, 2015. Ib Hausmann takes his instrument from his lips after he has ended the third movement of „Abîme des oiseaux“ from „Quatour pour la fin du temps“ by Olivier Messiaen who composed this opus in a German prisoner-of-war camp. The German President Joachim Gauck steps forward now and welcomes all guests. In his speech he emphasises that there is no German identity Auschwitz. Remembering Auschwitz needs to be an obligation for every German citizen. The emotional concern does not have to get lost despite of the future loss of comtemporany witnesses, Gauck states. I glance up.

The youth group with Joachim Gauck, Norbert Lammert and the holocaust survivor Marian Turski after the panel discussion. Photo: DBT/ von Saldern

The youth group with Joachim Gauck, Norbert Lammert and the holocaust survivor Marian Turski after the panel discussion | Photo: DBT/ von Saldern

From where I am sitting I can see Marian Turski with whom we were chatting only yesterday. President Gauck’s words deeply impress me. „The question people ask me especially often is: What was worst of all there in Auschwitz?“, Mister Turski said to us. A lot of people would think it was the starvation or the living conditions, the horrible cold or the lice that caused diseases like typhus. All of this would have been bad, but the worst was to be humiliated. „That you were not treated like a human being. That you were treated like a louse, like vermin, like a cockroach. What do you do with a coackroach, you crush it, you kill this vermin,” Turski explained.

Insights from Marian Turski

And his appeal to us will remain in my memory forever: We, the young people of today, have to be those who are going to carry on the baton of generations, the memory, the remembrance. We should bear in mind: „Worse than physical pain is the pain of humiliation. If there ever is somebody nowadays who humiliates others, a Roma man, a Jew, a Moslem, a Christian, a Bosnian, an Israeli, a Palestinian, then it is like building up Auschwitz again.“

He is right I come to realise. How often does humiliation and embarrassment also take place also in our daily lives. As in everyday school life in terms of bullying, when a student is put down simply because he or she is different, does not seem to conform with the rest of us, be it because of a speech impediment, sexual orientation, body weight, or simply the wrong kind of clothes?

Julia Weber born 1996, Germany | Photo: Julia Weber

Julia Weber born 1996, Germany | Photo: Julia Weber

The remembrance hour on 27th January 2015 is drawing to a close. I listen to our President whose words sum up my own thoughts and feelings at the end of the international youth exchange. A task results from our commemoration, the President says: It is our task to protect and preserve humanity, the civil rights for everyone, the dignity of the individual, the solidarity among people, the understanding and the cooperation of different cultures and religions.

What Auschwitz Teaches Us

When we leave the plenary hall, I am touched. I am touched by the words of the orators, by the solemnity and seriousness of this hour of commemoration creating space for remembrance and for all those who have to be remembered.

Six days of international youth encounter filled with so many and various experiences and impressions are over. I am grateful for every experience I could make and am now excitedly looking towards a future I hope to help to shape in accordance with the wishes of Gauck and Turski.

In fact, what does Auschwitz teach us if not the importance of creating a liberal, democratic, tolerant society in which every individual has his/her value and his/her own worth and right to exist – irrelevant of origin, culture, or religion?”


Further reading / external links:

+ Follow the encounter of the group with Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski in the German Bundestag on video (in English, 1:30h)

 + The speech by Federal President Joachim Gauck (in German, English, Russian, Polish, Hebrew)