This summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the eastern side of Europe. I went to countries like Poland, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which saw some of the worst atrocities of WWII.
Poland is home to Oświęcim, or as it is better known, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. Now serving as a memorial museum, its dark past is preserved in an awe-inspiring manner. Words are not enough to convey the feeling of gloom and despair one can feel when standing inside. There are entire rooms full of the possessions that were taken from the Jews who arrived there. Long pits full of hairbrushes, shoes, and crockery. Everything is preserved beautifully in order to show the true horror that the walls witnessed. The surroundings are breathtaking, and if one didn’t know the history of the place, it could even be described as one of the most beautiful places that one has ever seen.
A few miles away lies the second, bigger camp known as Birkenau. This is where the prisoners arrived, loaded onto trains with no idea of what was to befall them. Right on the platform, they would be segregated into groups – Those fit for working would be led to barracks, while those who were sick or weak would be taken for a ‘shower’.
Not limited to concentration camps, the effects of the Holocaust can be felt in every city all over Europe. There is a Jewish Quarter in every city, where all the Jews were forced to live during the war. There are Holocaust memorials in every city, remembering those who lost their lives.
In Budapest, along the banks of the river Danube, there is a series of what is considered to be one of the most powerful memorials in the world – the Shoes Along the Danube. It is a row of metal shoes, lined up facing the river. It represents the mass killing of the Jews that took place when Budapest was invaded. When the Nazi occupation came under attack, they did not have enough time to transfer all the prisoners to surrounding concentration camps, so they were led down to the riverbank, lined up, and shot. It was one of the biggest mass executions in the history of the war, and its memorial reminds the world of that every day.
World War II was one of the darkest periods of human history, with one man leading the charge against a whole race of people. There is no ‘superior race’. There is just one species – humans, which comes with a very special feeling – humanity. It is up to us whether we follow a few bad eggs or a few good ones because, in the end, it all boils down to what we think as a whole, as a society. If humans could overcome this ‘mob mentality’ and actually follow through on their individual thoughts, the world would be an infinitely better place, free of situations like the one that still affects millions of people today.
~ Dhruv Jain, Amity International School, Noida
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