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Trainees keep the memory alive

The afternoon sun shines on the old trees. Acorns dot the grass. A young woman stands with friends next to remnants of a red brick wall. She listens silently to a man talking about mass murder. He is describing how the crime took place. More than 70 years ago. Right here:

The murderers crammed their victims into freight trains to bring them here. They forced them to undress. Then they herded them into a nearby building. The air was filled with the deadly Zyklon B gas. Once the lifeless bodies were on the ground, the Sonderkommando (a work unit made up of prisoners that was forced to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims) came through to cut their hair and search for any objects of value before taking them to the crematorium. “In the summer of 1944, there was nowhere near enough capacity to cremate all of the victims. The Sonderkommando comprised of fellow prisoners piled the dead on the grass, poured gasoline over them and lit the fire,” says Christoph Heubner, vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee. The Nazis murdered more than one million people between 1940 and 1945 at the former NS concentration camp Auschwitz and NS extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The majority of the prisoners were Jews from several European countries. The Red Army began freeing the few survivors on January 27, 1945.

Something like Auschwitz may never happen again

Sophie Heck prospective print media technology specialist
Sophie Heck (center) wanted to learn more about the fate of the prisoners: “Did they know that they were going to die? Were they still hopeful?”

A few days earlier in Wolfsburg. The young woman, Sophie Heck, sits in a plain office building and talks about her upcoming trip to Poland. Together with almost 30 other trainees from Volkswagen, they will spend two weeks at the International Youth Meeting Center in Oświęcim/Auschwitz. They will help tend to the concentration camp memorial and preserve it as a place of remembrance. It was 30 years ago that the International Auschwitz Committee and Volkswagen launched the joint project, which was conceived and is still led by Christoph Heubner. “Something like Auschwitz may never happen again,” says Sophie. The prospective print media technology specialist had heard and read a great deal about the horror. Now she is looking for answers that can't be found in books. “I’d like to understand what the prisoners went through. Did they know that they were going to die? Were they still hopeful?”

Sophie knows that she can handle it. She practices Thai boxing in her free time. During the preparatory period before her trip, though, she was warned that the work at Auschwitz can bring dark moments. It’s something many other trainees have also experienced. “There is a chance I will cry when I hold the clothing of murdered children in my hands,” says Sophie. The 17-year-old has known for a long time that she wanted to spend some of her training time working at the memorial. Her strong interest is closely tied to her own family history. During the Second World War, her ancestors had to work in a German labor camp. Later, most of her family settled in Kazakhstan, while Sophie’s great-great uncle came to Canada after a period of forced labor on a German farm. “For many years the family didn’t know if their brother was alive,” says Sophie. It wasn’t until 1961 that the family was reunited. During the opening of Eastern Europe her mother and father both came to Germany, where her parents met.  

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Further information can be found on http://www.volkswagenag.com and on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/vwgroup

Note in accordance with Directive 1999/94/EC in its currently applicable version: Further information on official fuel consumption figures and the official specific CO2 emissions of new passenger cars can be found in the EU guide "Information on the fuel consumption, CO2 emissions and energy consumption of new cars", which is available free of charge at all sales dealerships, from DAT Deutsche Automobil Treuhand GmbH, Hellmuth-Hirth-Straße 1, D-73760 Ostfildern, Germany and at www.dat.de.

Trainees keep the memory alive

“I got goosebumps when I first saw the shoes”

Day four of Sophie’s trip. A workshop at the memorial site. The 17-year-old is sitting at a table, next to her are two boxes of shoes. Sophie reaches into one of the boxes and pulls out a child’s boot. She gently taps on the sole, carefully removing fine particles and dust. Then she puts the boot in the other box, which is almost full. “I got goosebumps when I first saw the shoes,” she says. An employee of the memorial regularly picks up the boxes and brings new ones. The cleaned shoes are being preserved for display at a visitor exhibition. Mountains of shoes, glasses, brushes and suitcases are visible evidence of the extent of the crime.

Ines Doberanzke-Milnikel, who supervises the educational and organizational activities of the memorial at Volkswagen, knows that the work can take a toll: “That is why we pay attention to having a variety of jobs and switching activities.” In the morning, trainees work on maintenance of the memorial. In the afternoon, they can take tours, talk to living witnesses or go on field trips. Every evening they get together with Doberanzke-Milnikel and Heubner. They discuss who will be doing what the next day. “No one has to do a job they don’t feel ready for,” says Doberanzke-Milnikel.  

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In a workshop at the memorial, Sophie Heck cleans the shoes of victims.
2
The tall fence at the border of the former extermination camp is a symbol for the hopelessness of Auschwitz. Trainee Daniel Stepanov helps replace the barbed wire – and to thereby keep the memory alive.
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Ines Doberanzke-Milnikel supervises the educational and organizational work for the memorial at Volkswagen.

We realized that we are really needed here. One person alone couldn’t do this work.

Daniel Stepanov prospective office manager

At the periphery of the former extermination camp. A tall fence marks the border between captivity and freedom. Led by an employee of the memorial, a group of trainees unrolls barbed wire, lifts it up and pulls it tight. Daniel Stepanov stands ready at one of the fence posts to fasten the barbed wire. “The barbed wire stands as a symbol of the hopelessness of the prisoners. Without it, Auschwitz wouldn’t be identified as a concentration camp. So the barbed wire has to be replaced regularly,” says the prospective office manager. The work seemed difficult at first. Later on, the team got better and better at working together. “We realized that we are really needed here. One person alone couldn’t do this work.”

Evening at the Youth Meeting Center. The trainees have cleaned up their tea and snack of bread and cold cuts. Some are playing table tennis, others sit at the table and listen to music. That too is part of the trip: Relaxation, recreation, a little bit of school trip atmosphere. The participants come from Volkswagen locations in Germany and Poland, some attend a Polish vocational school. In addition to the work at the memorial, the program is also intended to promote the exchange among trainees from both countries. In an international company such as Volkswagen, a global mindset, tolerance and respect are included as integral elements of vocational training.

Concern among Auschwitz survivors

Christoph Heubner is vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee. The trainees learn from him about how the mass murder occurred at the former extermination camp.

Heubner emphasizes that it is also important for survivors of the Holocaust to talk to the young people. “For many of them, it is what keeps them alive. Zofia Posmysz, a Polish journalist and writer, says that meeting the young people strengthens her will to remain on this earth a while longer.” In addition, these actions being taken to not forget have a strong current relevance. Heubner: “It is a great concern for survivors of Auschwitz that far-right extremism has reemerged in German society and is developing its own momentum in the wake of the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). They are gravely disturbed by the hate far-right extremism spreads and the violence it propagates.”

Amid the current discussion, Volkswagen too has sent a message against discrimination, xenophobia and exclusion. At an information event at the Chemnitz engine plant, Board of Management members, works councils and the workforce took a clear position in support of diversity and respectful, mutual cooperation. “The lure of populists is sometimes hard to resist. That’s why it is even more important to raise awareness with regard to their slogans, to resolve issues, ensure rationality,” said HR director Gunnar Kilian.

The main thing is that we stay together!

Sophie is sitting at a table near the pond. She is talking about how she just found a little treasure inside one of the shoes: “At first I thought it was just a piece of paper. Then I took it out carefully and saw that it was a piece of an old newspaper.” Maybe the paper was used in the shoes to help keep them a little warmer on cold days. There is nothing more we can say about it yet. Is it a newspaper from Hungary, Poland, Greece? How could it have gotten to Auschwitz? It will now be analyzed in order to better understand the fate of the shoe’s owner. “It would make me proud to have contributed to that,” says Sophie.

Were the prisoners hopeful? That is what the 17-year-old wanted the find out on her trip. On this day, she received part of her answer. Christoph Heubner: “During the transport to Auschwitz, many families said: The main thing is that we stay together! In almost all of the cases, though, even this small hope was destroyed as soon as they arrived.” The prisoners were separated into two groups. Those who could work had to endure forced labor until it killed them. Women, children, the elderly and disabled were often murdered in gas chambers on the same day they arrived.  

Three days after returning home. Sophie is back in the plain office building in Wolfsburg, thinking about her trip to Auschwitz. “It’s something everyone should see,” she says. You can learn a lot from books, movies and in school. “But you can only really imagine how inhuman it was by going there yourself.” An exhibition detailing the fate of murdered children was especially hard for her. Visitors to the memorial usually aren’t allowed to access the exhibit. “Now I appreciate even more that I can spend time with my family almost every day.”

Together with the other trainees, Sophie decided that her efforts to not forget should not end with the trip. She would like to go to Auschwitz again someday to help at the memorial. And the trainees plan to stand up together against anti-Semitism and xenophobia at home, too. They have made a firm commitment to it. Sophie: “We have all seen what can happen if far-right extremists are able to take over. That can’t happen again.”

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Further information can be found on http://www.volkswagenag.com and on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/vwgroup

Note in accordance with Directive 1999/94/EC in its currently applicable version: Further information on official fuel consumption figures and the official specific CO2 emissions of new passenger cars can be found in the EU guide "Information on the fuel consumption, CO2 emissions and energy consumption of new cars", which is available free of charge at all sales dealerships, from DAT Deutsche Automobil Treuhand GmbH, Hellmuth-Hirth-Straße 1, D-73760 Ostfildern, Germany and at www.dat.de.

30 years of work at the memorial site

  • 30 years of work at the memorial site

    • Work at the memorial site and youth meetings in Oświęcim (English: Auschwitz) are a joint project of the International Auschwitz Committee and the Volkswagen Group.
    • The International Auschwitz Committee (IAC) was established in 1952 by survivors to ensure that Auschwitz would not be forgotten. The IAC comprises organizations, foundations and Holocaust survivors from 19 countries. The IAC provides information in German, English, French and Polish at www.auschwitz.info.
    • In the past 30 years, more than 3,000 Polish and German young people, vocational school students from Poland and trainees from the Volkswagen Group have taken part in the youth meetings.
    • The goal of the program is to raise awareness for the historical and present responsibility of Volkswagen, resulting from its role during the time of National Socialism.
    • In addition, since 2008, the company has offered a program for executive managers, in which some 450 master craftspeople and managers have participated. Talks and meetings with living witnesses and survivors of the Holocaust are part of the agenda. The International Auschwitz Committee supervises these meetings and study trips. They are an integral element of the culture of remembrance at Volkswagen.