Recentley Ellie Macdonald (VP Welfare and Equal Opportunities), Rosanna Greenwood (VP Charities and Communities) and I attended the Lessons From Auschwitz Project, a specifically designed experience for sabbatical officers and university leaders hosted by The Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) and The Union for Jewish Students.
On the 18th of November the three of us traveled to the orientation which included an introduction to the Holocaust from HET, group discussions about pre-war Jewish life, a testimony from a Holocaust survivor and general preparation for the visit.
The orientation was not only vital for our understanding and preparation but it provided us with a personalised insight in to the atrocity of the Holocaust. We discussed the vibrancy of Jewish life across Europe before WW2 and how the Jewish people lived varied lives and practiced their religion and culture in different ways. This gave us the opportunity to think about the 6 million Jews murdered as individuals. We were able to reflect on their personal lives and communities, something which is often forgotten when discussing the Holocaust due to the vastness of the statistic, ‘6 million people’ and our inability to comprehend this number.
We also had the honour of hearing from Susan Pollack MBE, a Holocaust survivor. Susan spoke about her experiences as a young girl in Hungary and how the Holocaust manifested itself in sinister and sometimes subversive ways before she was deported. She spoke of her brother Laci being unable to enroll in university due to restrictive laws against Jews and anti-Jewish graffiti appearing on the streets of her village. The deception of the Nazis caused great distress for Susan and her fellow villagers; her father was invited to a ‘welfare meeting’ by the council but was then immediately deported and she never saw him again. This deceit was rampant across Europe as more and more Jews and other marginalised groups suddenly starting disappearing under the guise of resettlement. Susan also talked in detail about the anti-Semitic propaganda she heard on the radio and in her village and how this broadcasting of hatred allowed for, and justified, the growing physical violence against the Jews. The deportation of the Jews from Hungary happened swiftly in less than two months from mid-May 1944. Susan, her brother and mother were amongst them.
What struck me when Susan was telling us this was that she and her family and fellow Jews were still under the impression they were being resettled, so she packed her sewing machine as she was a keen and able sewer, the insidiousness of this by the Nazi’s was truly terrifying because people had no idea of the horror they were soon to face. Susan recalled the inhumane transport she and her family had to endure; hundreds of frightened people squeezed together in cattle trucks. When she and her family arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, after being sent to a Ghetto and internment camp, she told us how her family was immediately pulled apart. Her mother was sent to join a group of elderly prisoners and sent directly to the gas chambers. Susan was selected to work in grueling conditions, unimaginable to us, enduring 10 weeks at Auschwitz-Birkenau before being sent to an armament factory to work as a slave laborer. She talked of how she wished for the allies to come and help her. She was finally ordered on a death march to Bergen-Belson where she managed to survive until the British army liberated her on April 15th 1945. Whilst at Bergen-Belson she recalled sneaking out and seeing her neighbour who, by surprise, recognised her, Susan reassured her neighbour that she would be back to see her but when she returned the neighbour had died. Before the liberation Susan had crawled outside and she remembers tenderly being picked up by a soldier who had helped liberate the camp. She described his gentle touch and the love she felt from him. This was a very moving part of her testimony because to many of us basic human decency is something we take for granted and in essence that was this soldier was showing to Susan, but given the monstrous conditions she had been forced in to and lack of compassion she had seen it must have been almost miraculous to her. Concluding her testimony Susan spoke of her post war life and the struggles she faced; her physical recovery was comparably straight forward to the mental recovery which she described as something she still deals with daily.
To finish Susan implored us, as the future generation, to never tolerate hatred in any form because that is where the murder of 6 million Jews started. This testimony is something that will stay with us forever, it is almost incomprehensible to hear a person talk of such atrocity and then imagine them living through it, but it is important that we understand that the Holocaust effected 6 million individuals and each story and experience is different even when the unifying feature is atrocity.
After arriving we travelled to the town of Oswiecim, most commonly known as Auschwitz.In our small groups we stood in the square where mass deportation from the town took place. We looked at photographs of the deportations happening which depicted Jews carting away their beloved possessions, still under the impression they would be resettled, whilst onlookers watched from windows. We discussed the position of bystanders and what role collaborators took in this deportation and the thousands of others that occurred. We were then able to visit the only surviving Jewish house of prayer in Oswiecim, after over 30 were demolished in the war. The Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue operates now as a place of worship for Jews travelling to the area, although it has no congregation or rabbi the space provides visitors with a sanctuary for prayer, reflection and solace.
When we arrived at Auschwitz I the three of us were shocked at its proximity to the town, we had imagined the camp to exist in a bubble far from other human existence, however, the realisation of its physical closeness in Oswiecim made us more aware at how visually prevalent the Holocaust was in occupied areas. Our guide through the camp was extremely informative and our HET educator interjected with anecdotes about the people who were imprisoned there. We walked through the buildings where prisoners lived and also saw items people had brought with them. The sheer enormity of the piles of people’s belongings struck a chord with each of us. These were things people were attached to, items they saw important to their lives and for them to be stolen from them and tossed aside is yet another example of how the Nazi ideology dehumanised the Jews and other minorities. For me the most poignant exhibition was the one of hair, just piles and piles of human hair which had been violently sheared off the prisoners which was then to be used for making fabric. It was at Auschwitz I that we also saw The Book of Names, an enormous book, metres in depth, which lists 4 million of the Jews murdered. Seeing how huge the book is allowed us to start to comprehend the millions, which is a number so great you generally can’t begin to conceptualise it.
We then travelled to Auschwitz-Birkenau, again we were bewildered by its closeness to civility, a road literally runs past it and commuters must drive past this place each day. It was turning dark as we arrived at the camp and the temperature was dropping lower. It was here that we were really confronted with the systematic murdering of the Jews. We were faced with an area so huge you couldn’t see the other side, just rows and rows of barracks. These barracks were originally intended as stables and the prisoners were packed in with barely any room to move. The air was still and cold and we could only imagine the pain of the prisoners who lived through freezing -20-degree winters and sweltering summers. Our HET educator told us a story of a man who managed to keep a diary of his time there which he then buried, he addressed each entry to “Discoverers”. By visiting this site we became his “Discoverers” - his aim was to share the barbarity of the camp and to ensure it would never be forgotten. It was at this moment when we realised the poignancy of why we were there. We were there to see first-hand what we all have heard and for the hatred which led to this to really be impressed upon us.
We walked past the ruins of the gas chambers and past the memorial which reads “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.” It was the first line of this inscription which the three of us spoke about, specifically “A warning to humanity”.
During the visit Ellie, Rosanna and I saw how far hatred can go and how crucial it is that we look back on the Holocaust as a warning of how day to day hatred, speech and propaganda can lead to extermination camps. Rhetoric cannot exist in a vacuum and condemnation of hate in all its form must happen.
At Oxford, within our own community, we are seeing hatred become more and more prominent. At the Lessons From Auschwitz follow up symposium we discussed the impact the visit had on us and what steps we can take to support Jewish students and spread the messages we learnt on the project. There is a lot of talk at the moment about whether or not the rejection of hate speech contravenes free speech and what platforming an individual means. At Oxford SU we are proud to be part of a University which champions free speech and rigorous academic debate, however, we recognise a clear distinction between that and hate speech. We reject all forms of bigotry and the unnecesarry platforming of it. The three of us stood in a place where 1.1 milions people faced the consequences of hatred and we are not prepared to sit back and let that happen again.
We will be publishing a follow up blog with information on the specific ways we will be taking the Lessons From Auschwitz further, if you want to be involved or know more please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you to The Holocaust Educational Trust and The Union of Jewish Students for giving us this opportunity to learn.