Joseph Willits: What I have learned from visiting Auschwitz this week
After a trip to Auschwitz, it is something of a dilemma thinking of an image with which to describe the experience. Undoubtedly, and most understandably, many will choose to describe the piles of matted hair exhibited behind glass. Perhaps one might focus on the names of Jews from across Europe – Amsterdam, Budapest, Krakow, Paris, Thessaloniki – with their identities engraved into leather suitcases. Then there is the variety of sizes of shoes - a stark testament to the fact that genocide failed to discriminate according to age. How can we also not include the dehumanising through number tattoos, the gas chambers, the ovens, the brutal and obvious scale and precision of the operation, and its effectiveness?
However for me, the experience begins in London, with the educational, and even emotional journey of 200 or so sixth form students from across north London, and their Lessons from Auschwitz, a project run by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET). The trust’s aim, “to educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today” has meant that, for thirteen years, over 14,000 students and teachers from all over the country have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau, as part of the project.
Throughout the project’s history, the students have been accompanied by MPs, journalists, and other guests, to not only be educated about the Holocaust in much the same way, but to benefit from witnessing respectful young people and their interaction with the issue. Iain Duncan Smith, for example, reflected on his experience on this site.
Together with the students, MPs Bob Blackman (Harrow East), Nick de Bois (Enfield North), Matthew Offord (Hendon), and Deputy Mayor of London, Richard Barnes, offered their support for the HET’s project, and for those students of their respective constituencies in their attendance.
Nick de Bois spoke of the importance of the project, and his reason for being there:
“There is a quotation that is so often illustrated across the death camp that notes "If we learn nothing from history we are doomed to repeat it" For me that is why these trips are so important lest we ever forget how prejudice can present itself when taken to the extreme. The more we educate our children about Auschwitz and other camps the less chance history will repeat itself “
Throughout the day, the students on the trip maintained a dignified, respectful, and perhaps most importantly, hopeful attitude while tackliing the bleak and daunting experience of visiting, and memorialising a death camp. Rabbi Barry Marcus of London’s Central Synagogue was glowing in his tribute both to the students and those who have come before them. He told guests that the staff at Auschwitz were always pleased to welcome students from the HET project, trusting their ability to appreciate and learn – and take something back from the experience. This was most evident in the memorial service held to conclude our visit. Squashed, cramped, physically and emotionally drained, we prayed, read, listened to Rabbi Marcus’ sung prayer, and before leaving left lit candles on the railway tracks.
The HET’s chief executive, Karen Pollock describes the trip to Auschwitz of giving the students “the chance to understand the dangers and potential effects of prejudice and racism today”. It is testament to her, and the intentions of the trip, that using lessons learnt from Auschwitz - and whilst still there - the students were actively contemplating the effects today of racism, prejudice, xenophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and homophobia, to name but a few. The experience as a whole allowed for theset link to be cemented, understanding the lesson from Auschwitz that prejudice and racism, which can start small, have the potential to become a monster.
On personal reflection, I pondered an article by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in 1993, written at the height of the Bosnian war. Sacks wrote:
“In 1993 we are faced with a question that demands an answer for the sake of humanity itself. Does nothing change? Have the millions of pages written on bias and prejudice since the second world war proved powerless to prevent their recurrence? Can we stand a bare half century after the Holocaust in a Europe that has replaced the word Judenrein with the equally repellent phrase “ethnic cleansing”, and not ask the question: “Were we wrong to say ‘Never again’?” History is not a film endlessly repeating itself. The ending has not been written. The Bible says: “Behold I set before you today the blessing and the curse, life and death. Therefore choose life.” History is made by our choices. And nothing that has happened in the past forces us to let it happen again. There are too many parallels between the mood of Europe now and the mood 100 years ago; and we have too much knowledge to ignore the line that leads from hatred to holocaust”
The argument for NATO’s military intervention in Libya, to avoid other Srebrenica-like massacres that Sacks referred to, is all too poignant the day after Gaddafi’s death. With discoveries made in Libya, of torture chambers and evidence of mass graves, it suggests we once again expected the worst, and were proved right. More worrying perhaps is the anticipation of what we are still to find in Syria, where for 40 years or more, the country as a whole has some resemblances to a prison camp, previously hidden behind the deceptions of change and reform.
What if the videos we have seen emerging on mobile phones from Syria, of decapitated bodies, torsos blown apart from shelling, and the mutilated genitals of children, could have been produced by people witness to the atrocities of Auschwitz, somehow smuggled out? The laughter and footage from trophy videos of soldiers and security forces, humiliating their “sub-human” victims, would be the same. Those images we do have documented, by the Nazi forces themselves, or on discovery afterwards are evidence of brutality, yet much of the evidence of atrocity we will never see.
Yet again, as is often the case, my mind was drawn to my time as a teacher in Syria, and the sixth formers I taught there, amongst others, whose lives, testimonies and experiences have been marred by the brutal and bloody government crackdown in the city of Homs. Like their peers on our trip to Auschwitz, their appreciation and understanding of horrifying historical events, and the need to educate to defy the horror is the same. However, when the horror is in the present, and part of an ongoing daily struggle, it is difficult to talk of memorials to past atrocties. Where hope lies, however, is that in the young people who took part in our trip to Auschwitz, there is a respect and understanding that will continue to be nurtured, not just about the dreadful events in Auschwitz, but in a wider, often more subtle context.