Holocaust Memorial Day 2019: I am a witness

Ever since my first foray into podcasts, I have become an avid listener of one channel in particular. Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul conversations are inspiring listens: she discusses life, love and death with a variety of spiritual leaders, academics, psychotherapists and artists in an attempt to connect us to ourselves, each other and the greater world around us. There is no specific religious angle that the podcast takes: it simply asks and provides perspectives on the biggest questions that confront us all: what happens when we die? What is love? What is reality and what space is there for the spiritual? I have enjoyed reading philosophy and cultural criticism for a very long time, but this realm of spirituality is one in which I feel quite out of my depth. In a world full of distractions, this podcast directly reacquaints us with perennial questions that it may be worth integrating into our lives on a more regular basis.

One of the episodes that touched me the most was the interview Winfrey conducted in 2012 with Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who passed away in 2016. There are so many amazing words of wisdom that Wiesel imparts over the course of the interview but one of the most important moments comes 27 minutes in:

‘All of us who went through that experience [the Holocaust] consider ourselves witnesses. When the last witness will be gone, I don’t want to be that one, too tragic. What will happen? So on one hand you can become pessimistic: with the last witness, all of the knowledge, all the experience, all the memories will be buried. Then what? So I came up with a theory, which I think is valid. To listen to a witness is to become one. To listen to a witness is to become a witness. Therefore, those who have listened to us, who read my books and other survivors’ memoirs… we have a lot of witnesses now. And they will protect not only our past but also their future’.

There is a profound message of solidarity and hope here that, I think, is very inspiring. Although the survivors of the Holocaust will not be alive forever, their memories will endure through the people who listen to them. I am a witness: from having read Anne Frank’s diary, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and from having seen The Pianist, God on Trial and Schindler’s List. I have also listened to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors at The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Newark (also known as Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre) and from visiting the death camps when I was 16 years old as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’. For the latter, we were encouraged to disseminate what we had witnessed and learned about the Holocaust amongst our peer group, to improve understanding of the Nazi atrocities with the hopes that we can all prevent bigotry and hatred becoming a political killing machine once again. My friend and I planned an assembly about our experiences that sadly never came to fruition; therefore, for Holocaust Memorial Day 2019, I wanted to post about my experience with the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’, and in honour of Elie Wiesel, to openly declare myself a witness to genocide.

I first learned about the Holocaust from reading a Children’s Encyclopaedia when I was about 7. This photograph captured my attention perhaps more than any other in my book:

elie wiesel

Interestingly, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago, when I listened to Oprah’s conversation with Elie Wiesel and decided to write this essay about it, that I learnt that he is one of the men pictured in this photograph (he is lying on the second row up, seventh to the right). I remember looking at this photograph for the first time and thinking that something very, very wrong had happened to these men. They look so thin and ill, tightly packed in together and using pots as pillows. I didn’t think it was possible for people to look like this. Their expressions are extremely intense: they don’t look pleadingly, they don’t look hopeful, they don’t look relieved at having been liberated. Their expressions are gaunt, calm and unflinching. They are the stares of people who have witnessed and experienced abject horror and brutality. It is the least I can do now to write this essay to say that I saw and still see them, I will listen to their stories and I will do my best to live a life where such horror is not forgotten or delegitimised.

In 2009, at the age of 16, two History students in my year group were to be given the opportunity to represent our school in the East Midlands cohort of the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project. I applied and was successful, along with one of my best friends. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing: embarking on a deeply harrowing and moving trip was really made all the more bearable by having a close friend to share it with. The project began with an orientation seminar at the Albert Hall in Nottingham where ambassadors were split into groups to discuss what we were all doing there. We talked about the Holocaust, how it unfolded, why it should be remembered and, most importantly, how we remember it with the respect and dignity its victims and survivors deserve. We discussed the ethics of taking photographs at the death camps; we critiqued the difference between listening and reflecting on survivor testimony as part of the trip, as opposed to turning a visit to Auschwitz into a tourist box-ticking exercise.

(As an aside, it still horrifies me that 10 years after my experience on the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project that some stag do packages for Krakow still list a trip to Auschwitz as a suitable activity, alongside Kalashnikov shooting, strip clubs and water parks. The hideously named ‘Last Night of Freedom’ site is the worst, see below).

last-night-of-freedom-1.png

 

last night of freedom 2

 

The orientation seminar was an excellent way to prepare us for the trip because it established a context about Holocaust remembrance, but also prepared us for our reactions to the Holocaust trip. In short, there is no correct way to emotionally respond to the death camps once you are there: we were told that fear, sadness, anger and numbness were all feelings that might arise. To feel one, any or none of these was fine. There was plenty of support available, from our fellow ambassadors, volunteer teachers who were to accompany us, and the Holocaust Educational Trust course Educators themselves.

On 29th March 2009, we caught an early flight from East Midlands airport to Krakow. My cohort was accompanied by Andy Reed, who was the MP for Loughborough at the time, as well as photographers and journalists from the Loughborough Echo and Leicester Mercury newspapers.[1] The first location we visited after landing in Poland was the small town of Oświęcim, more renowned for its German name of ‘Auschwitz’. Here, we were taken to a Jewish cemetery. This was such an important part of the trip because it helped us to understand that prior to the Second World War, Jewish culture and communities in continental Europe had been thriving: indeed, in 1933, Europe had been home to 9.5 million Jews. Oświęcim itself had been home to 5000 Jews, 20 synagogues (including the Great Synagogue that was burnt down by the Nazis in 1939) and a bustling Jewish neighbourhood. Upon the Nazi occupation of Poland, the town’s Jewish population were all deported. Whilst some returned to the town after the liberation of the death camps, there are now no Jews living in the town today: the final member of the pre-war community who returned to Oświęcim was a man called Shimshon Klueger who died in 2000.[2] In total, 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, including 1.5 million children. The cemetery at Oświęcim formed the resting place for only a few Jewish men and women: but standing in front of these graves, knowing that the death of just one person is such a loss, such a great loss to the world and to loved ones left behind, the figure of 6 million became immediately and horrifyingly vast.

We were then taken to Auschwitz I, which houses the museum. We saw mountains of shoes, suitcases, glasses, prosthetic limbs and human hair, all forcibly taken from prisoners at the camp. The attempt to dehumanise the prisoners, to strip them of their dignity and their very identities was plain to see. We saw dingy corners of the camp where prisoners were hung or shot; and the cramped living quarters where prisoners were forced together like animals.

We were then taken to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the bigger, more spaced out camp with its infamous railway tracks and watch tower. We were taken to the different barracks, including the Family Camp where a frieze of Disney’s Snow White was painted on the wall, into the watch tower itself and to the crematoria. At each stage of our tour, we paused to reflect, to listen to a piece of survivor testimony or to a poem, helping us to personalise the experience. The barracks, toilets and train tracks weren’t just shells or husks of the past, they were brought back to hideous and heartbreaking life through the words of the people who were forced to live and die there. We learnt that the toilets became one of the most desirable places to work for the prisoners because in spite of the smell and the mess, it afforded prisoners the chance to work inside and out of the cold. And believe me, it was cold. We visited Auschwitz in March, so not the height of winter but still cold enough for snowfall. We were wrapped up as tightly as possible in layers of hats, scarves, gloves and big coats; we were keenly aware that the prisoners would have been in painfully thin prison uniforms without any of our protections against the absolute freezing cold.

Going into the watchtower was one of the most gut-wrenching moments for me because from such a high vantage, you could see every corner of the camp. I truly began to appreciate how big Auschwitz was, how big the Nazi desire was to kill people. The Nazis really had gone to such a lot of effort to kill people, and the scale of their hatred was reflected in the enormity of this camp. Auschwitz involved killing on an industrial scale, approximately 1.2 million people were murdered here. To see it all laid out, coldly and clinically organised, with barbed wire encasing rows and rows and rows of barracks, was terrifying and sickening to behold. From the watchtower, we saw groups of Israeli students, walking down the tracks waving a Star of David flag. It was defiant, it was funereal, it was a celebration: the Nazis had tried so hard to destroy the Jewish race, and here we were 64 years later, witnessing Jews coming to Auschwitz alive, healthy and full of pride, to mourn the colossal attack on their people and the whole of humanity.

The visited concluded with an emotional memorial service led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, who sang a prayer in Hebrew for all victims of the Holocaust. He named Dachau, Sobibor, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and many of the other camps where Jews were transported and murdered: whilst Auschwitz is the most famous death camp, there were many others spread around Poland, Germany and even Austria. It began to get dark and we lit candles, which we laid on the tracks.

andyjreed - flickr group

Copyright: AndyJReed, Flickr

The whole day, with the enormity of what we had witnessed as well as the flights to and from Poland, felt like a bit of a whirlwind. Once we had returned home, we attended a follow-up seminar which, looking back, was absolutely essential. It enabled us to process and ground ourselves with everything we had seen and learnt. We discussed what we had experienced, what our reflections were and, most importantly, what we were going to do to increase Holocaust education and awareness. Ten years on, I still reflect on the trip I took to Auschwitz. What I have learnt is that the primary aim of this whole experience was to help ensure that with enough understanding of the past and with enough hope for the future, something like the Holocaust will never happen again. In the Super Soul podcast, Elie Wiesel was adamant that the biggest challenge in the present moment and in future was fighting indifference:

‘I’ve dedicated my life to not only fighting evil, too difficult, but to fighting indifference […] the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference […] indifference enables everything that is bad in life. And, therefore, fight indifference’.

Raising awareness and talking about the Holocaust lifts people out of the mundanity of day-to-day life and confronts us with what humanity is capable of. It is not comfortable, it is not pleasant but it is absolutely essential. Although hatred and bigotry act as sparks for crimes against humanity, it is indifference in everyday life that fans the flames of hatred. It is indifference, apathy and the belief that something that does not impact you personally isn’t your business that is the slippery slope towards unimaginable bigotry and violence. At the root of hatred and bigotry, I believe, is a profound fear of difference. If we were to explore this fear, crack open stereotypes and confront the inherited confusion and anger that fear might entail, we might bring about some positive change in the world. Indifference is a state of ignorant detachment. Indifference prevents you from truly feeling and experiencing life. It is a self-interested, privileged indulgence. I agree with Elie Wiesel that indifference is as great a threat to human life as hatred.

With anti-Semitism once again rising in the UK and across Europe, and worshippers recently being shot at a synagogue in Pennsylvania, it is imperative that the horror of the past is not forgotten. Genocide should have stopped after the Holocaust; however, there have been many instances of genocide since the Holocaust. Indeed, genocide is taking place right now in Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To me, the fact that human beings should wantonly forget or underplay horror on such a scale in the 1930s and 1940s is unfathomable. I defy anyone to go to Auschwitz and not come out knowing that human beings can and must do so much better for one another. I think the most fitting way to conclude this essay is with the man who inspired it, Elie Wiesel: a man who suffered so much cruelty but who was able to cultivate indelible light and hope out of the darkness of hate. He is still an inspiration to us all:

‘[I am] part of a generation that has felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind and yet I believe we must not give up on either. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children; between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves for not. I know I speak from experience that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man’.

 

[1] I learnt only recently that Andy Reed had signed an early day motion in 2008 in support of government subsidies for the ‘Lessons From Auschwitz’ project, which can be accessed here: https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/35229/holocaust-educational-trust-auschwitz-trips

[2] ‘Your Visit: Lessons From Auschwitz Project’, The Holocaust Educational Trust, p.15.

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