At the beginning of last month, I had the privilege of joining the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Yorkshire and the Humber trip on their Lessons from Auschwitz Programme.
Since 1999 the programme has taken over 34,000 young people to Poland to see for themselves what racism and prejudice can result in, should it be acceptable in society.
The programme starts with a seminar a few weeks before the trip, and then followed up with planning how to spread and educate others on what the we have learnt.
It’s taken me almost a month to process what I saw, heard and felt that day.
I left my home at 4:40am and made the journey to Leeds Bradford Airport. It was cool and breezy and I had spent the past few days worrying about what to wear. Last time I went to Poland it was the depth of winter and -14 degrees, so in May, I didn’t fully know what to expect.
The plane was full of young eager minds; 200 people from all over Yorkshire. I was to be in a group with a few schools from around Leeds and Bradford. Once we arrived in Poland, we headed to the coach, and it was still fairly early.
We drove to the town of Oświęcim, where we heard from our educator about the influence of Jewish life in the town, that the Jewish population was high, and that the local priest came to attend the wedding of the local Rabbi’s children. In 1932, Oświęcim was a fantastic place to be Jewish. The synagogue was huge and situated within a mere 2-minute walk of the largest parish church. In 1932, the Jewish population of Oświęcim was thriving and integrated within the community.
I watched people’s faces as realisation hit the more we talked about this town before the war, Jews were no different to any other member of the community, yet they were forced to leave their houses, they were humiliated in broad daylight, and antisemitism soared. As the Nazi’s invaded, the buildings were Germanised, the Jews were forced out; the Rabbi, the doctor, the well-respected primary school teacher, everyone, gone.
As we walked under those famous words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, I looked to my feet. I knew that under this banner, millions of people had walked, the stones worn not just from the prisoners, but from the millions of people that visit here to pay their respects, to learn, and to remember. It was dusty, the heat had dried out the mud, it was so warm it felt like the air was tight on my lungs, it sat heavy on my chest.
We were shown around by a fantastic tour guide who stopped to answer everyone’s questions. We heard stories about specific prisoners and about the type of people that were held in Auschwitz 1. We saw the grand scale of this camp, the one where people were sent to work. Hard labour. We saw the list of names, 4.2 million names. An entire room, with page after page of names of who we know perished. Reminded that there are at leave 1.8 million names that we do not know.
When we turned the corner, we saw the first gas chamber and I was shocked. It looked like a little bunker. It didn’t look clinical. It didn’t look systematic. It was quite small. It didn’t feel small. Around 3000 people were stripped of all their belongings, their hair, and their families and herded in to one of these bunkers to “shower”. They never came out.
Outside the chamber, whilst I stood waiting for the rest of our group to come out, I looked out to the commandant’s large house where he lived with his wife and children. We spend a lot of time humanising the victims of the Shoah, and rightly so. But we must never forget to humanise the architects of this mass murder. People made choices. The holocaust was a human event perpetrated by humans.
We then made the short journey to Birkenau. We walked by the side of the train track, through the gates, and congregated. Everyone was a lot quieter than they had been previously.
We spent a few hours talking and seeing Birkenau before we all gathered together near the destroyed gas chambers. Some of the younger participants read out some passages, and we gave ourselves time to reflect.
The holocaust was not just what happened at Auschwitz. In fact, it’s only touching the surface. Antisemitism didn’t just stop on the day that the camps were liberated. Ideology is incredibly complex and difficult to change. The few years that these camps were in activation, 6 million Jews were systematically murdered. It did not matter how religious they were, no one questioned whether they kept kosher, no one asked if they went to synagogue every week or every day. They were rounded up just because of their race. Forced to identify themselves with the Star of David.
In Birkenau, men still gathered to pray, knowing what may happen to them if they were caught, but that didn’t stop them. They traded rations, traded their sleep to meet in the middle of the night, all for the ability to say their prayers as they always did. That was something that could not be stripped from them.
The political nuances that led to the holocaust are often forgotten when we discuss just one place or one person. From the boycott of Jewish business to the burning of Jewish books; pictures in the press depicting Jews as evil, and pedalling the old blood libel trope; the banning of mixed Jewish –German weddings, and the banning of Jews from the streets on certain days; the holocaust did not start with the gas chambers.
The weather was blisteringly hot the day that we were there. The birds were singing, the trees had blossomed, and weather-wise, it was a beautiful day. What happens when evil is sunny, when evil looks beautiful? It’s easy to tell when evil is nasty and aggressive and shout at you in the face. We must be under no illusion that evil can very much hide in plain sight.
We held a moving memorial service at the end of the day, which is something that HET do on the end of all their trips. The Rabbi who was with us spoke some words that have stuck with me ever since.
“Fire can do two things, it can destroy and burn, or it can nurture and create. One thing fire will always be able to do is spread the light. We light a candle in memorial and let it burn. Candles, from one wick you can light a million flames, the more you have the more you can give.”
In 2018, across Europe we are seeing a rise in antisemitism. CST reports show antisemitism to be increasing, and we hear about Jews in Germany, France and Austria being scare to wear their Kippot in public, and even being warned off wearing it for fear of abuse. In the UK, we see antisemitic cartoons shared, we have debates on antisemitism in the House of Commons, and we have members of parliament sharing platforms with people that think the holocaust was all a hoax.
In 2018, we have a choice to make. People make choices, either be a bystander and watch people be persecuted, or stand up bravely and say Enough is Enough.