2009-2010 Max Sundermann - Volunteer in Centre for Dialogue and Prayer

One year in Oświęcim

maxBefore I came to Oświęcim most of the things I knew about this place, I knew from history classes in school. I knew the pictures of the mountains of hair, shoes and cases, of the sign with the words „Arbeit macht Frei", of the crematoria and of the "death gate" in Birkenau. All these pictures gave an image of a place that could actually not be a real place at all. The cruelty of the things that happened here were to me completely unimaginable and the knowledge, that my own people did this to Jews, Roma, Poles and many people from all over Europe is a big burden.

The guilt of the holocaust is a very important element of German self-understanding after World War II. In school the holocaust plays a role not only in history classes but also in German, social studies, religion and sometimes music and art. Many towns in Germany have a memorial dedicated to the citizens who were send to the concentration camps. My hometown, which is only a small town, has organisations which do research on the Jewish families who lived there before the war. Since 2004 the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe located in the heart of Berlin gives physical proof that even the second, third and fourth generation after the war still feel their responsibility towards the past.

In the eyes of many people Auschwitz has become the symbol of all the horrors of the national socialist regime. Sometimes when people talk about the holocaust they say Auschwitz. I wanted to see this place. In 2007 and 2008 a youth organisation from my hometown tried to organise a study tour to Oświęcim for students. This project was funded by the town and the state but both times there were not enough participants who wanted to go. Both times I registered to go with the group and actively tried to find more participants. But in both years there were not enough students who wanted to participate. I could not understand why it was not possible to find enough people to go on this study tour.

I still wanted to go. After I finished school in spring 2009 I was obligated to do military service. When I heard that it is possible to fulfil this duty with a voluntary service abroad, I applied for a voluntary service in the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim. Since October 2009 I'm working in the Education department of the Centre.

In general my work in the Centre is about accompanying the groups which come here. I do short introductions to the history of the camp, the town and the Centre. I help organizing programmes and meetings with former prisoners. One of my responsibilities are also guided tours about the history of Oswiecim. Oswiecim is a really fascinating place. When I first came here I was surprised. There is actually a normal town. From everything I read and heard about Auschwitz, the town was hardly ever mentioned. The picture most people in the world seem to have of Oswiecim is only that of Auschwitz. Usually when I talk about Oswiecim people in Germany find it very hard to believe that it is actually a normal small Polish town, where people have a normal live, where people are having fun and go out on weekends. Oswiecim wants to be as normal as any other town but because of the tragic history it never will be.

I thought coming here and seeing the camps with my own eyes will make it more understandable, how all this was possible. I hoped I will get an imagination of how many people were killed here. The numbers from my schoolbooks were so unimaginable big. Now after almost one year in Oswiecim I know that coming here does not make it any easier to understand. I came to get answers to my questions. How was this possible? How did the people in Germany let this happen? How can humans be able to commit so terrible crimes without any regret? I learned very much during this year and it has definitely become easier to understand the time and the conditions in the camps a little better but during this very intense time of dealing with the topic of holocaust and genocide in Auschwitz and in general on a daily basis many new questions aroused. I'm sure I will go home with even more questions than I had before the year.

The most intense and interesting people I met here were the former prisoners. I'm very thankful for the opportunity to meet them, especially concerning the fact that soon there won't be any witnesses left. Being a part of the last generation, which will have the possibility to talk personally to witnesses of the horrors of Auschwitz is also a big responsibility. When there are no former prisoners left there is still a big demand for people who inform younger generations about the biggest crime in mankind's history. The witnesses pass this mission on to my generation and I will take this task home with me. The encounter with former prisoners was for me allways very special and moving. The openess and friendlyness of the former prisoners is something that still amazes me. From them I never encountered any resentments towards the children and grandchildren from the people of the perpetraitors. Still being able to this kind of openess after all they had to endure, demands big respect from me.


The time I spent here will definitely stay with me for the rest of my life. Seeing the memorial does not change anyone but reflecting on what you see and putting yourself into this context might move something. What would you do? How would you have reacted? I met so many different and interesting people. In the past Oświęcim was a place where the results of xenophobia lead to the extermination of over a million lifes. Today it is a place where foreigners are welcome. People from all over the world meet here to remember the suffering of the people who were imprisoned here. Now Oświęcim, the "City of Peace" as it calls itself, has become a place of remembrance and hope. I will always remember it like this.


Max Sundermann