Human remains, skeletal and naked, are among the first images of “Auschwitz Virtual Live Tour.” Russians captured the gruesome scenes as they liberated Auschwitz, the largest of six Nazi death camps, in January 1945. Jerzy Wójcik, the tour’s creator and only guide, begins with them precisely because they act as a “punch in the face.”
For a two-hour tour of the largest concentration camp ever built and the epicenter of the Final Solution, such a shock is necessary to remind people just what they’ve signed up for, he said.
Wójcik explains that these murdered victims were left by the Nazis, who did not have time to burn the bodies before fleeing the advancing Russians. As he speaks, his voice is quiet, nearly a whisper, but the images are loud, certain to focus viewers and immediately cast out distractions.
Roughly 60,000 people have seen the tour since Wójcik developed it two years ago and joined forces with the East Valley Jewish Community Center (EVJCC) to promote it. He’s learned what works, especially when it comes to presenting information to kids.
“Being part of the educational system and part of teaching the new generation of people gives me a lot of satisfaction,” Wójcik told Jewish News.
Thanks to a grant last summer from the Molly Blank Foundation and a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix last spring, the EVJCC is offering the tour to Arizona’s schools for the 2022-23 school year.
Rabbi Michael Beyo, EVJCC CEO, hopes schools take advantage of the offer, especially given that Holocaust education curriculum for seventh through 12th graders was mandated by legislation signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in 2021.
“This is such a great opportunity to teach Holocaust education in general, and specifically about Auschwitz,” Beyo told Jewish News.
Tours for schools are customized in consultation with teachers, who may request that some of the more graphic images are not included, particularly for younger students.
Last year, 4,000 Chandler School District high school students spent three days experiencing the virtual tour, with plans for more this spring. The district tweeted its thanks:
“With help from Rabbi Beyo and @EastValleyJCC, our high school students opted in to experience a virtual field trip of Auschwitz & learn the historical importance of the Holocaust.”
During the 2021-2022 school year, more than 6,000 middle school and high school students from more than 40 schools in Arizona and across the United States attended the tours.
A high school teacher in Michigan told the EVJCC, “Students were in awe. We had such a great conversation after and continue to reference what we learned on the tour; it has contributed a lot of new information to our curriculum.”
Students come to the tour with various levels of knowledge about the Holocaust and what part Auschwitz played. Some have spent a semester covering World War II with an emphasis on the Holocaust, some have read “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account of being imprisoned there and some come to the tour having had only a brief introduction.
Wójcik said the tour accommodates them all.
Wójcik was born and raised in the Polish town that borders the infamous concentration and death camp, and after being steeped in its history for most of his life, he spent 15 years as a certified Auschwitz guide and educator.
In 1947, Auschwitz, a huge complex divided into three main sections, including 40 satellite camps, was established as a museum that preserved much of what remained of the original sites. Wójcik created the virtual tour after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person visits — when there was no telling when it would open again.
Wójcik uses both Google Maps and his own footage to show the large scale of the place juxtaposed with some buildings’ tight and ominous interiors. Giving a macro and micro view was remarked upon by several high school students in their feedback to the EVJCC.
Without geographical restrictions, he can take his viewers from prisoner barracks and the inside of a gas chamber to a collection of victims’ most personal belongings: eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs, even hair — the one item the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum doesn’t allow visitors to film.
One question students often ask concerns what people did all day.
He explains that no matter their profession, people were forced mainly into physical labor: digging, making fences, building things, fixing existing things, cultivating land, growing potatoes, building gas chambers and carrying bodies to crematoriums. Thousands were also sold as slave labor to places like IG Farben’s chemical plant outside of Auschwitz.
At this point, Wójcik takes time to point out that many existing German companies, such as Bayer, Siemens and Volkswagen, benefited from Auschwitz and slave labor. He suggests investigating these and other companies as a homework assignment to discover what role they played and whether they ever suffered any consequences for their actions.
The tour’s script includes details of prisoners’ daily lives, including photos of the thin, striped uniforms and wooden clogs they wore and a description of their scraps of daily food that consisted of roughly 300 calories made up of tea or coffee, a thin soup with a few vegetables, potatoes and maybe, some days, meat, and a slice of bread, even, on good days, a pat of butter.
Wójcik shows pictures of people so stunted by malnutrition that a teenage boy looks like a prepubescent child and an adult man resembles a teen. There’s a photo of an adult woman who weighed 50 pounds when she was liberated. She died shortly after.
The Russians liberated 7,000 people and more than 600 died soon after. They were given food, but their bodies rejected it.
However, the overwhelming majority of people who arrived at Auschwitz were selected to go straight to the gas chamber. For those chosen to live, life expectancy was two months on average.
One thing Wójcik wishes he had more time for is stories of survivors.
He tells a few of their stories, including one woman who invited him to stay at her house in Tel Aviv in 1999. She was a teenager when she was arrested in Krakow, the same city where Wójcik now lives.
A student once asked her why she didn’t try to escape while she was being transported.
“While I was holding the head of my mother in one hand, in the other hand I was holding the hand of my younger sister,” she replied. “How can you possibly try to escape in a situation when you’re just trying to hold onto your family?”
During the Q&A following his Dec. 4 public tour, participant Corinne Vance commented that it is “sobering beyond words to know that people knew and did nothing.”
Wójcik hears this often and said that the words “never again” are often repeated by well-meaning people who have no concept of how to prevent further atrocities.
“Atrocities have happened, are happening now and they are going to happen in the future and the question is exactly the same: Who knew and how did we react? Whether it was Yugoslavia or Rwanda or even now in Ukraine, the reaction is the same,” he said.
It’s one of the reasons his work is so important to him.
Another is ensuring that people don’t forget the past, especially now that survivors are passing away and there’s a rise in antisemitism.
Though nobody has ever denied the Holocaust outright to his face, he has met people who tried to diminish it.
“Antisemitism is driving that and it’s the same sort of myths that the Jews are ruling the world and controlling the media,” he said.
The EVJCC is a great partner for Wójcik since it has a long history and high caliber of Holocaust education, as well as established connections in the U.S. and Canada, said Beyo.
“It’s easier for us to promote these tours than an individual person sitting in his office in Poland,” Beyo said.
The EVJCC schedules public tours every Sunday and every other Saturday for $39. It is a scholarship boon for those who, for any reason, can’t travel to Poland.
“There are so many hundreds of thousands — or millions of people maybe — that would want to have that experience, but going to Auschwitz in Poland is not on their bucket list,” Beyo said. JN
To schedule a tour, visit holocausteducation.center/arizona-schools.