Auschwitz: A Lesson from History

"Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it" - George Santayana

As someone with a particular interest in the rise of Fascism in the first half of 20th Century Europe and the trauma of Nazi occupation, I felt that I might be better prepared than some of those I was travelling to Poland with to visit the Auschwitz Death Camps. I have read numerous accounts of the crimes that took place throughout the occupied territories, seen the grotesque photographs of the horror uncovered by Allied soldiers in the last days of the War when the camps where liberated, watched the documentaries and interviews that archive the testimonies of survivors and followed the tenacious exploits of Nazi Hunters like Simon Wiesenthal.

Hearing from a survivor

This illusion soon disappeared when we were given a talk by a survivor the day before we flew out to Krakow. As the voice from history echoed through the conference room to a silent, almost awe struck audience, I realised that none of the academia I had engaged with could ever prepare me for hearing first-hand the words of someone who had borne witness to the greatest crime ever committed in History. Susan Pollack told us of the normality of her life in rural Hungary before the beginning of the War. She told us of the hopes of her family, the little village she lived and grew up in, of the ups and downs and that none of them could have imagined the tragedy that was about befall them. She told us of the ghettos, the beatings, the humiliation, the deaths of her loved ones and finally the journey to Auschwitz and the torment she endured until she was liberated by the Red Army. The incomprehensible numbers and statistics that I had pored over in history books which sanitise the brutality of the Holocaust suddenly became real and frighteningly intimate.

Arriving in Krakow

On landing in Krakow we made our way straight to the site. Stretching over forty kilometres, Auschwitz-Birkenau was comprised of three main camps and dozens of satellite facilities. We started the day in the Polish town of Oswiecim, renamed Auschwitz by the Nazi occupation. It was once home to a pre-war population of eight thousand Jews, the majority at fifty eight percent, which congregated in twelve synagogues throughout the city. They lived in peace with their Catholic neighbours and they celebrated each other’s holidays. Oswiecim no longer has a single Jew living there and the bricks of the Great Synagogue were used to build the infrastructure at the death camps. Susan’s story played through my mind as I looked around the place, the normality of the place, the day to day going ons suddenly shattered and erased forever.

Auschwitz I was the first site used for extermination and the medical experiments undertaken by the Nazis, developed in the grounds of a former Polish Army Barracks. Much of the site has been transformed into a museum to curate the physical evidence left when the camps were liberated. On a personal level I think that this helps a lot of people deal with grotesque nature of the objects displayed like human hair and piles of personal belongings. However I don’t think that this detracted or demeaned the harrowing nature of the reality behind the exhibition, I personally found this the hardest and most emotional part of the whole trip. Again it was the intimacy that provoked and made the experience personal, a pair of small blue shoes triggered an image in my mind of my own brother as a baby and again it was no longer distant and remote but present.

We continued down the road to Birkenau (Auschwitz II), which many have seen in the Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List. The desolation of Birkenau feels as if it penetrates you. As you gaze along the rows of cattle sheds and walk up the train tracks that disappear in the middle of the camp, just in sight of the gas chambers, the fate of the masses whose journey ended there becomes unbearably apparent. The flat exposed plain on which it stands practically allowed the efficient surveillance of the prisoners, but also aided in the continuous humiliation and punishments of the Nazis victims as there was no protection or escape from extreme weather conditions.

We ended the day at the Bath Houses in which the prisoners were disinfected to stop the spread of disease through the camp. Inside the cold, clinical walls we made our way to a final room full of pictures that had been recovered when the camp was liberated. They showed families, lovers, friends, sports teams, all manner of rites of passage and the happy mundanity of life. Susan’s story told a hundred times over. We engaged in solemn service where prayers and liturgy were offered up to the memory of those victims consigned to the gas chambers and the flame. We then listened to a powerful sermon given by a Rabbi who had accompanied us. He told us that even today, in 2018, Jews where having their religious attire stripped from them, spat at and verbally and physically abused in public, in the United Kingdom. Again Jews were beginning to live in fear of their neighbours because the age old anti-Semitic tropes were becoming normalised and advocated within mainstream political discourse. Campuses were becoming the frontline in the battle against the dissemination of these poisonous views and that it was the duty of student leaders to call it out whenever we saw it.

What I learnt

The lesson from Auschwitz, for me, is a clear one. Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, did not appear with Nazis, nor did it with Auschwitz. It was the casual, acceptable anti-Semitism that had bubbled under the surface of mixed communities for centuries, to greater and lesser degrees, but most importantly had gone unchallenged and found itself a home within the fascist populism of the Nazis. It was the willing collaborators in the political elites within the occupied territories and the industries and businesses that transported the Jews to their deaths and profited from the misery of those that were used as slave labour and treated worse than beasts of burden. But most tragically, it was individuals like you and me that did and said nothing when the SS began the deportations. I therefore say uncompromisingly, it is our duty to call out the pernicious rhetoric of religious, racial, gender and sexual bigotry wherever we see it. It has no place on our campus, or anywhere. We must not shy away from this lest we be the generation that allowed the rise of a discourse and a politics that led to the unimaginable. Again.