Peace Seeds: Teens in Hiroshima Sow Seeds of Peace (Part 7)
Apr. 9, 2015
Part 7: Study tour of the Holocaust
Two high school students who are junior writers of the Chugoku Shimbun took part in a study tour to Europe, sponsored by the Hiroshima Peace Creation Fund, to learn about the Holocaust—the genocide of Jewish people and a symbol of the tragedies of World War II. Young people from Hiroshima, an A-bombed city, visited sites in which innocent people became victims of the racist policy of Nazi Germany and pondered their role in building a peaceful world.
Arata Kono, 17, a third-year high school student, and Maiko Hanaoka, 16, a second-year high school student, visited the former Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland with six university students from Hiroshima Prefecture. As they walked the sprawling grounds, and looked at the many items left behind by the victims, they reflected on the people’s lives, felt their despair, and confronted the insanity of war.
They also listened to the testimony of a Holocaust survivor and renewed their determination to carry on these memories to the future. Then, in the Netherlands, they visited the house in which Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family and others. The students tried to imagine what Anne Frank, a girl of their age who longed for freedom and peace, must have felt there.
On May 31, at the International Conference Center Hiroshima in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, they will give presentations on what they learned from this tour.
Main activities of the study tour (March 22 to 29)
Visited the former Auschwitz concentration camp (today’s Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum)
Met with the deputy director of the museum
Visited a room in which art works are exhibited from the collections of the museum
Listened to a survivor of the camp
Exchanged views with local high school and university students
Met with Janusz Chwierut, mayor of Oswiecim, and delivered a message from the mayor of Hiroshima, who serves as the president of Mayors for Peace
Visited Anne Frank House, a museum, which includes the room where Anne Frank lived in hiding
Met with Executive Director Ronald Leopold
Exchanged views with the staff members and volunteers of Anne Frank House
Visited City Hall in Amsterdam and delivered a message to the mayor from the the mayor of Hiroshima, who serves as the president of Mayors for Peace
Innocent victims must be remembered
by Maiko Hanaoka, 16, and Arata Kono, 17
A huge mass of hair, shaved from heads, and heaps of old shoes... Countless artifacts of the victims were before us, on display. We were shocked by the sight and our thoughts froze when we recognized that each item represented a person who was killed. It was hard to imagine so many human beings murdered here, but this was the reality of the Holocaust.
It was the first extermination camp we had ever visited. When we entered the gates of Auschwitz I, beneath a sign bearing the slogan “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” (“Work makes you free”), we saw rows of poplar trees and red brick buildings. It was like standing in a town in the Western world, but we were taken aback by what Takeshi Nakatani, 49, told us. Mr. Nakatani is the only Japanese guide at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, established at the site of the former concentration camp. He said, “The Nazis planted trees to beautify the environment.” We felt anger at this brazenness, putting more priority on landscaping than people’s lives. Mr. Nakatani told us that the flowerbeds by the sides of the road were put in place to ease people’s minds and keep them from fearing that they would be killed.
Among the exhibits, we saw braided hair, which probably belonged to a girl of our age. She must have been in her adolescence and wanted to look nice. The hair she grew over a long time was cruelly cut. We felt this was unforgivable. “Do you see a clump of hair or a human being?” asked Mr. Nakatani. His words pierced our hearts.
When we went inside a gas chamber, there was a chill in the air. It was a square room surrounded by concrete walls. To kill the people inside, Zyclone B, a cyanide-based pesticide, was tossed into the room from a small opening in the ceiling. We were told that the victims would grasp toward the ceiling, gasping for fresh air, and in the end, became piled up in a pyramid shape and died.
Right next to the gas chamber was the crematorium, where about 600 bodies were burned each day. Eventually, the number of victims exceeded the capacity of the crematorium, and at times, bodies were burned in the open fields. Jewish prisoners were ordered to carry the dead. They must have been horrified, imagining how they might be killed next, and filled with sorrow over carrying the bodies of these victims. The emotional turmoil they surely felt is beyond our imagination.
We saw many photographs of the prisoners’ faces. Regardless of gender, their hair was cut short. People gazing into the distance, people with sad eyes, people who seemed to have lost their will to live... Seeing these images, we felt the full weight of the fact that most of the people who were brought to this place lost their lives here.
Auschwitz II, called Birkenau, is about three kilometers from Auschwitz I and rose up suddenly amid the marshland as we approached. At its peak, this camp held about 100,000 people. Today, this “last stop” for the lives of so many includes about 120 buildings and building ruins. The site quietly but powerfully conveys its terrible history to visitors.
Our feet felt heavy as we walked along the train tracks that led into the camp. We saw a freight car for animals on a track to one side. As many as 200 people were crammed into these freight cars bound for the killing camp. On arrival, a doctor separated them into two groups, to the right and to the left: this meant life or death. We were stunned with sadness. It seemed as if we could hear the people lament, “We’ve finally arrived. What will become of us now?”
The site was 1.4 square kilometers, more than 10 times the size of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. There were four gas chambers at Birkenau, but before the Soviet army liberated the camp, they were blown up by the Nazis to destroy the evidence of their crimes. What were the gas chambers are now only piles of bricks.
The concentration camp was like a factory for the ongoing “operation” of killing human beings. The Nazis were even planning to expand these facilities. It’s so hard to fathom why they were murdering innocent people, including children and their promising futures.
We climbed up the looming guard tower, and imagined what the guards saw as they gazed down on the camp. As they looked at the scores of people lined up below them, they probably did not view them as fellow human beings, but as a species for extermination. That may be why they could become so cruel.
When we visited this place of the Holocaust, which gives testimony to what actually occurred here, we felt strongly that such horrors must never be repeated. “To know the past may help us now decide what we will do next,” Mr. Nakatani said. This was the challenge we received from him. We pledged to gain a proper grasp of history so we can make wise decisions when we become adults.
Wactaw Dtugoborski, a survivor of the Holocaust: Important to learn from the past
by Arata Kono, 17, third-year student at Hiroshima Prefectural High School
“I was able to survive because I didn’t give up hoping I would live,” said Wactaw Dtugoborski, 89, a Polish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, in response to my question about how he endured the hard labor and eventually escaped. As a historian, he stressed the importance of holding an objective view of the past.
Mr. Dtugoborski showed us the number “138871” on his left arm, tattooed onto his skin when he was brought to Birkenau. The number was blurred but still visible in blue. Branded with a number, he was deprived of his name, a central aspect of human dignity. Instead, he was viewed only as a source of labor. We could keenly imagine his humiliation and sorrow.
Mr. Dtugoborski was arrested by the Nazis after joining the resistance. He was 17 when he was brought to Birkenau in 1943. Because he was a Pole, he avoided the selection process of life or death, but his arm was tattooed.
It was Jewish people who were subject to the selection process. At the camp, Mr. Dtugoborski saw prisoners who were on their way to the gas chambers. They seemed to realize their fate, he said. “They didn’t look like they had any hope left. I didn’t know what to say to them, people who had lost all hope.”
He was given only a small piece of bread and margarine in the morning and in the evening; during work hours, he got a bowl of soup. Later, he was able to receive packages from his family, which enabled him to endure the hard work. Jewish prisoners were forbidden from receiving mail. Those who shared his barracks were marched to the gas chamber three months later.
When he was assigned to clean the drainage ditches, the task was unsanitary, but the workers could only wash off their bodies with cold water. Many fell ill, and he himself caught pneumonia and was sent to a hospital ward. He was unconscious for a week and lost 15 kilos. He almost gave up in despair, but encouraged by the people around him, he fought back to better health. He was moved to another hospital ward and assigned to help patients bathe. The two stoves and showers there helped him endure.
Mr. Dtugoborski said he was able to survive thanks to the good fortune that enabled him to escape. In January 1945, an order was given to move the prisoners west. As he was working in the hospital ward, he remained there with the patients, but he knew intuitively that he would be killed because he was a witness. The SS (the Nazi guards) had fled in vehicles, leaving them behind, so the order to transport them west was not adequately communicated. As a result, they were not watched for about two hours. Mr. Dtugoborski donned clothes stored in a warehouse and made his way to the frozen river to escape. As he was crossing the river, he came across another SS guard fleeing the front lines, but he managed to evade capture and succeeded in escaping from the camp and reaching town.
After the war ended, Mr. Dtugoborski decided to study the Holocaust, as a historian, to know the truth. With the number of survivors declining, he now gives his testimony twice a month. He listens to people’s views and thoughts to deepen his knowledge and seeks to convey the truth widely to others.
“Young people are responsible for the world’s future and they should learn from history,” he said. He emphasized the importance of young people studying history, among other subjects, so that the tragedy he experienced will never be repeated.
Young people must also convey the facts of history
by Arata Kono
I had learned about the Auschwitz concentration camp only from textbooks and other books and pictures, but when I actually stepped inside, I felt like I myself was surrounded by barbed wire. I imagined how the prisoners felt when their freedom was taken away and they were confined in the camp with only the open sky above them.
I was overwhelmed. When I looked at the ground, everything around me lost its color and appeared monochrome. The photographs I saw in the exhibition rooms overlapped with the sights I was seeing. As I gazed at the buildings from those days, it hit home that these horrible events really took place here. It’s a different feeling from the feeling of standing in Peace Memorial Park, in Hiroshima, which was reconstructed from the ashes and is now alive with greenery.
During World War II, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed many innocent people, including children. At the same time, Japan colonized countries in Asia and killed many people in China and in other nations. In this 70th year since the end of World War II, the junior writers and others must strengthen their peace activities to send out messages of peace to the world.
All of us of the younger generation must learn the tragic history that Japan perpetrated and, at the same time, we must continue telling the world about the horrors of nuclear weapons. To call for an end to war, in which innocent people, including children and their futures, fall victim, we must exchange views with young people at home and abroad and promote peace.
The house where Anne lived in hiding
by Maiko Hanaoka, 16, second-year student at Hiroshima Jogakuin High School
In Amsterdam, the Netherlands, we visited the Anne Frank House, where Anne (1929-45), who wrote the now-famous diary of her experience, lived in hiding with her parents, her sister, and others.
When the rotating bookcase at the back of the office was pulled open, secret stairs appeared from behind. I had known about the bookcase from reading Anne’s diary, but when I actually went up the stairs, I grew nervous. The stairs were steeper and darker than I had imagined.
We went up the stairs and found rooms where Anne and the others lived. The rooms felt empty, and the floor squeaked with every step. The rooms were so small, I couldn’t imagine eight people living there, holding their breath, for two years. My heart ached.
The thick curtains were always pulled closed during daylight hours so they couldn’t be seen from outside. The window in the attic was the only window which brought in light. I looked up at the window from the room below. If they were found here, they would be arrested and might well be killed. In that tense atmosphere, Anne was listening to the birds singing and the bicycles going by. How she must have longed to go outside, I thought.
Her actual diary is on display. The pages are filled with tiny handwriting so she could make full use of the diary pages. It seemed to me she kept this diary as a way to unburden herself in a time of such strain.
The photograph of Anne’s father, Otto, was unforgettable. He was the only survivor among the people who hid in this house. After he was liberated, he returned to the vacant building. The picture shows Otto’s face, in profile, gazing quietly at the room. He had lost his entire family and was now staring at the empty space. I wondered what he was thinking as he recalled the days he spent in that house with the others. I felt so sad, like a hole opened in my heart.
I’m the same age as Anne. During our visit, which lasted an hour and a half, I tried to feel what Anne felt and I walked quietly so I wouldn’t make much noise. It was a short visit, but I felt so tired. Emotionally, I was exhausted. In the last part of the museum, there was a notebook for visitors to express their thoughts. I wrote: “I will convey the tragic history of the Holocaust to people in Hiroshima.”
Sharing the same view with local youth
by Maiko Hanaoka
We held meetings to study about the Holocaust before our trip, but there were many things we could only understand by actually visiting these places.
I felt horrified by our visit to the former concentration camp at Auschwitz, as there was no sense of life of the people who once lived here. I couldn’t bear to face the sad fact that human beings, who were human beings like us, were treated so inhumanly and were put to death. Unless you visit this place in person, it would be hard to feel this sensation.
We met with young people in Poland and exchanged views with them. I was surprised that peace education in Poland is quite different from peace education in Hiroshima. I was born and raised in Hiroshima. I visited Peace Memorial Museum for the first time when I was in elementary school, and we were taught about the atomic bombing in school. In Poland, though, we heard that they start studying about the Holocaust when they’re 15 years old, once they’re old enough to take in these facts.
At the same time, the young people we met also thought that it’s very important to know what happened in the past, learn from it, and convey this to others. I was glad to know that we shared the same view.
I thought we have to learn more about the Holocaust in Japan, too. I earnestly hope that no child will ever have to suffer as Anne Frank did. I’d like to make the most of this opportunity and nurture the relationship with the young people we met there. I want to continue exchanging views in a positive way with young people abroad.
Auschwitz concentration camp
During World War II, Nazi Germany systematically murdered about six million people in Europe, including Jews and Romanis, a minority ethnic group. This genocide is called the Holocaust (the genocide of the Jewish people). Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp, established in June 1940 outside Oswiecim, in the southern part of Poland. Initially, Polish political criminals were imprisoned in the camp, but it was made an “extermination camp” in 1942, primarily targeting Jews. Before the Soviet army liberated the camp in January 1945, more than one million people were killed there, including Jewish people, transferred to Auschwitz from all over Europe, Romanis, and Soviet prisoners of war. In 1979, the site was designated a World Heritage site.
Anne Frank was a Jewish girl born in 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany. Fleeing Nazi oppression, she lived in hiding in Amsterdam, the Netherlands for about two years from the time she was 13. She wrote a diary about her day-to-day life for a little over two years, until she was caught by the Nazis in August 1944 at the age of 15. She died in a concentration camp in 1945.
What is Peace Seeds?
Peace Seeds are the seeds of smiles which can be spread around the world by thinking about peace and the preciousness of life from various viewpoints. To fill this world with flowering smiles, 49 junior writers, from the sixth grade of elementary school to the last year of high school, choose themes, gather information, and write articles.
(Originally published on April 9, 2015)