Why everyone should visit Auschwitz

By Robert Desmond, December 13, 2013
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Robert Desmond

Robert Desmond

I first visited Auschwitz a few years ago and vowed that it would not be the last time. Together with my father, cousin and friend we visited this site before heading on to trace my family roots close to Kiev in the Ukraine.

The whole trip was incredibly moving, particularly learning about Babi Yar, another merciless killing site in Kiev without a suitable memorial. Sadly, all too many places like this existed, yet today remain largely unknown. I returned to London with an overwhelming sense of duty to encourage as many people as possible to visit these sites if only to remember the dead. Yet I was met with a wave of “scared” people who didn’t want to go and be upset.

Unable to convince many to jump on the cheap two-hour flight, I decided I had to show people how close Auschwitz is by cycling there. I devised a route which followed the path of liberation taken by the Allies as they advanced across Europe to bring an end to the Second World War. I documented each day’s experiences and emotions in a blog as I navigated my way across Europe on my bike, alone. It took me 25 days to complete the 1,350 miles.

It was great to have many friends read my posts and give me support, especially not that close friends who became good friends. There were a few people who were fascinated with the camps I was describing and I was fascinated that they didn’t know much. Most people engaged with the information I provided. This was exactly the point of the trip: to educate. Not just about the well-known camps, but places like the trial rooms at Nuremberg and the beaches at Normandy.

These days, Polish, German and Israeli students are all taken to visit Auschwitz at around the age of 15. Some say this is too young but I believe it is better that they go and acknowledge even just a small amount of what took place rather than hoping to visit after they leave school.

I have been in Poland for several weeks since arriving here by bike and have seen the wonderful Jewish Community Centre that was opened by WJR and Prince Charles in Krakow. I feel safe in this country and, despite being rubbish with the ridiculously difficult language, I manage to get by.

After finishing my trip, I emailed Rabbi Barry Marcus and he said he would be leading a tour at Auschwitz just a couple of days later. I jumped on a bus to meet him and to join the trip he regularly organises with the Holocaust Educational Trust.

About 250 students and teachers from different schools in the north of England flew out in the early morning on a single chartered plane. They would return late at night after an exhausting but unforgettable experience. They got the seats on this trip by applying within their schools. There was no one on the trip who didn’t want to be there. They return home as ambassadors to present their experience to peers.

One of the “educators” on the trip had been back many times but still cannot comprehend what took place there. She made me realise that those of us who do return are still trying to work “it” out. From the comfort of our North London life, it is incomprehensible — yet we all know it happened. I feel that by visiting the site itself, I have been able to learn extremely valuable lessons about our progression as human beings.

I believe experiencing things is far better than reading about them. For me, school is not just about the subjects you learn, but interacting with different people, learning about the individuals in your class, dealing with tough characters and making great friends. Of course qualifications are important but people can still do well and enjoy life by just knowing how to deal with the world. This comes from experience.

Each visit to the camps had a different feel for me; visiting alone is definitely the hardest. Otherwise, I always bond strongly with whomever is with me. I am very glad to have visited these places with both my mother and father and I can honestly say every trip has been extremely worthwhile and unforgettable.

I am flying back out to Poland to complete a personal tour for a friend soon. I anticipate this will not be my final visit.

Last updated: 10:19am, December 13 2013