‘How old are you?’ – Jacob* asked my son.
“Twelve and a half,” my son answered proudly.
“That’s exactly the age I was when I escaped from the train and lost my mum,” Jacob told my son.
But this was no ordinary train. This was a train in Poland. And Jacob was a young Jewish boy.
Ironically we were visiting Jacob on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Aushwitz. I am not sure if he knew about the significance of this day – his memory is starting to fail him. But it was this death camp, Aushwitz, that Jacob was heading to.
I didn’t want to interrupt him as he continued to tell us how a farmer’s wife took him in to look after her cows and horses.
With the farmer fighting in the war, he become the male of the property and spent the next four years there, in fear the Nazis would find him. Ironically when the Russians liberated the area, they detained him believing him to be a German because of his clothing.
I look at my son and cannot bear to think about what these people went through. It was only recenly that Jacob has talked about these times. Maybe it is old age taking his mind back and making this time seem more recent.
But soon Jacob, and all those like him who lived through these horrors will be gone. And it is up to us to make sure we don’t forget.
I have visited two concentration camps in my lifetime, including Dachau near Munich while on a European bus tour in my mid-20s.
But my first experience was an 11-year-old during my family’s extended European holiday in 1982. As a mum, I look back and ask myself, would I visit such a place with my own children – and the answer is yes.
That’s because holidays are not just about fun – they are about learning. We experience nature and we learn about history in all its glory or cruelty. It is what has shaped us as a nation and a world.
I particularly think in this age of computer games – where killing someone or something gives you bonus points – it is important for children to realise the reality of cruelty and violence and the impact it has on nations, communities and individuals.
The camp I visited with my family as a child was Mauthausen, in Austria. Before I Google it to remind my adult self of it, I think back to what I can recall from my visit.
I remember it being grey and sad. I recall my young brain trying to get my head around how the people must have felt. I have vague recollections of the photos of living skeletons.
But most of all I remember wondering at the cruelty of the doctor who used the prisoners for medical experiments. I cannot remember his name, but I still have a vision in my head of a horribly deformed body.
I Google for information – he was known as Dr Death – Aribert Heim, an Austrian doctor who became a Nazi sadist, who performed unnecessary operations on healthy people without anesthesia, and displayed baked decapitated heads as paperweights on his desk.
Mauthausen was a concentration camp, created by the Nazis in 1938 to detain, torture and kill political and ideological opponents, as well as utilise them as labour in the nearby labour quarries.
In total, almost 200,000 people from across Europe passed through the gates for reasons ranging from religion to homosexuality. About half of them never walked out. Today we can – and in doing so keep the memories of these people and what they went through alive.
Learn more about visiting Mauthausen. The website notes that it is not recommended that children under 14 years of age visit the site.
Learn more about Dachau. This website indicates some content not suitable for under 12, but people won’t be turned away based on age.
You might also want to read this very touching, more recent experience of a family visiting a concentration camp.
* Jacob’s real name has been changed at the request of my mum.
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