Content Warning – Holocaust, Anti-Semitism, Death and Genocide
On 27 January 1945, Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi extermination camps, were liberated by the Red Army. In 2005, 60 years later, 27 January was chosen by the UN as the date to remember the killing of six million Jews and millions of other minorities by the Nazis and their allies.
Today marks the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camps and yet we still see evidence of antisemitism across the world that raises real concerns. In November 2022, the Association President, Margaret Greenaway, and I were invited to take part in the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ program run in collaboration by the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Union of Jewish Students. In this Hoot article I will share a little bit about what we learned and my personal experience – as a warning I will be talking about our visit to Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau and it’s ok if that’s something you might not want to read.
The Holocaust Educational Trust was founded in 1988 by MPs Grenville Janner and Merlyn Rees with the aim to ‘educate young people of every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today’. The ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project allows two students from every secondary school and further education college in Britain to visit Auschwitz every year. Margaret and I were given the opportunity to take part in the late autumn with around 150 other university students, most of who were sabbatical officers and staff within student unions. The program itself consists of two orientation seminars, a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum and a follow up seminar. I approached the course with the goal to learn more about antisemitism, the holocaust and how it’s relevant today.
At our first orientation session we were taught about the history of antisemitism and although I was aware of some of the stories, it hadn’t occurred to me that what had taken place was antisemitism. In fact, historically a lot of the scapegoating that took place was down to anti-Judaism (the rejection of the Jewish faith) as opposed to antisemitism (racism against Jews). The treatment of the Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators effectively changed the perception of the Jewish community from being a ‘religion’ to a ‘race’. It didn’t matter if you practiced the religion at all, the perception was enough. It was very interesting to hear that there have been many different examples in history (aside from the holocaust) where Jews have been targeted or blamed for something that they didn’t do (or that didn’t happen). Examples of this are the murder of Hugh of Lincoln in 1255 but more recent examples are the myth that the Jewish ‘control the media’ or the perception that all Jewish people have a loyalty to Israel. Of course the most extreme example of antisemitism was the Holocaust.
The word ‘Holocaust’ comes from the Greek language meaning ‘burnt offering/sacrifice’ and you may also hear some using the Hebrew word ‘Shoah’ which means ‘catastrophe’. The ‘Holocaust’ itself refers only to the genocide of European Jews, and although their numbers made up the majority of those persecuted, the Nazi’s also targeted many other groups including Romany, Sika and homosexuals. For me, the Holocaust was one of those events that I was aware of from a young age: I knew it was awful and knew it was important that it was never repeated, but I don’t think I really appreciated just how awful it really was. One of the things the program was really good at making us think about was the individuals involved and the experiences of families as opposed to getting lost in the sheer scale of the atrocities. When I think of six million people, they’re nameless, faceless – too many to comprehend. The problem with that is it makes it easier to remove the emotion from ‘a number’, but we were asked as a group to consider the individual stories and to ‘bear witness’ to the atrocities. Through the course of the program we heard from Holocaust survivors, read multiple testimonies and were encouraged to try and empathise with the victims and their families. I felt very privileged to hear directly from a survivor as there are few still alive to share their story.
I have heard people argue that genocide on the same scale as the Holocaust couldn’t happen today, but it’s important to remember that extermination camps weren’t built overnight, in fact their poor treatment started well before the second world war. As early as 1932 anti-Jewish laws were brought into Germany, followed by the Nuremberg laws in 1935. These sought to greatly restrict the activities of Jewish people and come 1938 they were no longer able to attend university. Essentially it can be a slow process, but it’s not always clear what’s happening when it first starts. It would also be remiss of me not to mention that of course there are modern day examples of genocide from Rwanda in 1994 to the most recent Rohingya genocide from 2016-2018. However, it’s accepted that the Holocaust has the highest death toll…by a long way!
Margaret and I flew to Krakow on the 14th November and upon arrival were bussed off to Oswiecim where the Auschwitz memorial and museum are based. It was a bleak, cold and foggy day, so much so that our flight’s landing had been delayed because the fog was so thick – it certainly lent to the atmosphere and dreaded anticipation of the trip. It wasn’t until the coach trip that I realised that there were two camps at Auschwitz where I had always just thought there was one. We first went to the original Auschwitz camp (where the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gates still stand, which translates to ‘Work Sets you Free’) which has been turned into a museum and we were introduced to our guide, Darota, for the day. All the guides were from the local Polish community, many of whom volunteered at the museum but also had a connection to the events that took place at the camp. Darota’s uncle was shot at the ‘death wall’ in the camp after it was discovered that he had given prisoners food from his land (all produce had to be handed over to the Nazis). It was busy, but no busier than I expected, apparently that day was quieter than normal: visiting Auschwitz is a mandatory part of the Polish curriculum and there had been a backlog since Covid. We were all given a headset but instead of listening to a pre-recorded tour our guide had a microphone that she spoke to us through. This was a really respectful and sympathetic way of holding a tour in such a place as it allowed Darota to talk very quietly but we could all still hear every word. This too added to the importance and reverence of where we were. Each bunker had been reappropriated to house a particular exhibit, including one with ‘Evidence of Crimes’ written above the doors. The guide explained that many Jewish people had been transported to the camps having been told they were being moved to live in separate communities where they would start their new lives. As a result they brought with their suitcases full of what they thought they would need, along with their most prized possessions. These were removed from them as soon as they arrived at the camps but a selection of these are now on display as evidence that the victims were brought there under false pretenses. Another case in one room was filled with empty cans of Zyclon-b, the cyanide based pesticide that was used to exterminate the prisoners, harrowingly accompanied by details of botched attempts. However, by far the most horrific room for me was filled with piles of human hair that had been removed to make blankets and SS officer uniforms. Once we had left that bunker I needed a few moments to compose myself before we moved on.
I mentioned earlier that I was ignorant to the fact there were two camps, but what I also wasn’t prepared for was the sheer size of Auschwitz-Birkenau II. This camp (located less than 2 miles away but conveniently utilising the railway tracks) was built with one reason in mind and that was the extermination of as many European Jews as possible. Where Auschwitz I could house 7000 prisoners and had one gas chamber and crematorium able to murder 340 in a day, Auschwitz II housed around 125,000 prisoners and had four larger gas chambers and crematoriums able to murder up to 1440 a day (there is an image below that shows the two side by side). Prisoners were brought in on cattle carts via the train lines in the droves and were lined up on the platforms for ‘selection’; a process by which an SS officer would point to the left or right depending on whether at a glance he had decided if the prisoner would join the camp or go straight to the chambers. Further stories of how awful life was here and details of the poor conditions were overwhelming, but these were peppered with stores of prisoner solidarity and of hidden artwork found years later, indicating the strength, courage and determination people had to survive. By this point in the day the sun had lowed and the cold was starting to creep through our coats, the tiniest discomfort compared to the sufferings prisoners here faced. The biggest thing I struggled with is that there really was no rational explanation as to why it happened, it seemed that someone had decided that all Jewish people had to be eliminated – but that wasn’t a good enough reason for me.
At the end of the tour a Rabbi who had accompanied the group lead a memorial service where we heard testimonials of family members of the Union of Jewish Students reps. We were also given a candle which we could light and place on the large memorial on the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau II. I placed mine thinking about the people who had lost their lives but also the knock-on affect felt round the world and the affect it still has now so many years later.
The whole experience was eye opening beyond belief, I always knew that a visit to Auschwitz wouldn’t be a comfortable one, but it really was a heavy day that I felt the weight of for weeks after. That being said I feel really grateful to have had the opportunity to have learned more and consider how the atrocities are still felt around the world by so many. Every time someone denies the Holocaust took place or makes a comment about the Jewish controlling the banks it perpetuates antisemitism and brings us further away from global equality.
If you would like to learn more about Auschwitz you can visit the Auschwitz memorial museum website as well as the Holocaust Educational Trust website. You may know already but there are a huge number of books detailing the experience of victims of the Holocaust that you may want to read into, these include ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and ‘The Journal of Helen Berr’. There are other books that were recommended during the day including ‘All Rivers Run to the Sea’ by Elie Weisel and the ‘Twins of Auschwitz’ by Eva Mozes Kor but there are a huge number of books also recommended on the Auschwitz memorial museum website.