Marking Holocaust Memorial Day 2022: reflections from my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Join me in marking Holocaust Memorial Day
Assistant Director of Insight and Public Affairs

Holocaust Memorial Day is a day to reflect on the lives of the millions of people who were stripped of their dignity and murdered during the Holocaust. To mark this day, I wanted to share my experiences of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau last year.

My great-grandmother, Eva Weinmann, was murdered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Poland 1942. Up to two million Jewish people, Roma people, gay people, Soviet political prisoners, and Polish people were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, mostly by poisonous cyanide gas, Zyklon B. Although Eva died nearly 80 years ago, the circumstances of her death ripple on through the lives of her descendants and across wider society.

Until the 1990s and the fall of the communist government in Poland, it was difficult to find any information about individuals who were believed to have been transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only since then has my family been able to piece together Eva’s story and that of her children. Even now, there are still missing pieces of the jigsaw. I knew that Eva arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau before the Nazis had finished building the two main large-scale gas chambers there. So what happened to her?

To help build a fuller picture, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in September 2021. I had been once before, many years earlier. It was surreal to now be visiting in the context of COVID, though it did mean there were far fewer other visitors, and therefore more chance to ask questions from the expert guides.

The Little Red House

I learned that Eva would have been murdered in a small house, a little way outside the northern perimeter fence of the death camp. The Nazis called it, rather innocuously, ‘the Little Red House’. It was an interim ‘solution’. Smaller groups of people would be taken into the house and murdered using Zyklon B gas.

It was a hot, bright day when I visited. When Eva arrived, it would have been below freezing and blanketed in thick snow. I stood on the train tracks where Eva’s transport would have travelled. I stepped onto the platform where she would have arrived, exhausted, starving and dehydrated after days locked in the cattle truck. I walked the 200 metres or so that she would have walked – her final steps – towards that Little Red House. I wondered if she would have believed what the Nazi guards would have told her – that she was just being taken for a shower – or whether she knew what was coming.

I stood in front of what remains of the Little Red House, just the size of a normal house, with six small rooms inside. I wondered which room she died in. At the back of the house, I could see what the guides warned me I would see: tiny white fragments of bone littering the ground – a result of Eva’s body, and the bodies of others murdered in the Little Red House, being burnt in the open air. I searched for a stone, and – as is common Jewish custom – placed it on the gravestone that has since been placed there in memory of those who died at the Little Red House.

Learning lessons from the Holocaust

Eva was murdered because of her race and her religion, and because she had nowhere safe to go. She wasn’t murdered by exceptional people. She was murdered by regular, everyday people. People who, before the war, were teachers, or postal workers, or greengrocers, or civil servants. People who went home to their spouses and children each evening when their work was done.

The British Government knew what was happening at Auschwitz-Birkenau 18 months before Eva was murdered. They received detailed reports from Polish intelligence in 1941. In the preceding years, they had refused entry to Britain to Eva and her daughter, my grandmother, because Britain was ‘too full’.

Many people say the Holocaust is a lesson from history. Is it one that we’ve learned? How many genocides have taken place since the 1940s while the international community shrugged its shoulders? How many people fleeing race-based persecution have been denied sanctuary in nearby nations? Aren’t anti-Semitism and other forms of racism still alive and kicking in society today?

The Holocaust may seem like a lifetime ago – and it is – but we should never fall into the trap of believing it is no longer relevant to the world in which we live today. It is the lessons from the Holocaust that inspire my work to make a difference by challenging injustice and speaking up on behalf of those whose voices are not always heard.

Let's learn from the past for a better future. Visit Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for more information.