A special feature by Woodroffe School student Tommy Brown following a recent trip to the former concentration camp
ON January 27 the country observed Holocaust Memorial Day; a day of remembrance for all those who have been killed and persecuted as a result of genocide.
Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust yet, on this day of remembrance, a shocking poll revealed that one in 12 Brits believe the scale of the Holocaust has been exaggerated, and one in 20 denies the Holocaust altogether.
With a 40 per cent increase in religious hate crime in the past two years, as well as the numerous allegations of anti-Semitism in the UK parliament, it is clear we are living in divisive times.
In light of this, I embarked on a month-long project with three other Woodroffe students that taught the need for compassion during times of division. It highlighted the consequences of prejudice and racism becoming acceptable in society.
This project was ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’, run by The Holocaust Educational Trust since 1999.
During the orientation seminar we were given the rare honour of talking to Holocaust survivor and activist Hannah Lewis MBE, who works with the trust to pass on her story to students across the country.
She shared emotional recollections of her harrowing imprisonment, as a child, in the Nazi Labour Camp Adampol. We learned of the tragic loss of her mother, and many other family members, during the atrocities. However, she focussed her testimony on her emotional healing in the war’s aftermath.
Following the liberation of Adampol by Soviet forces, she was displaced and settled in the UK, whilst her father moved to the Jewish State of Israel. As an adult she re-visited her family home in Włodawa and returned to the nearby labour camp, where she erected a memorial.
Woodroffe sixth former Jasmine Aldridge commented: “Listening to the survivor’s testimony suddenly became very personal – these atrocities endured can never be allowed to happen again.”
Indeed, Ms Lewis highlighted the need for students to challenge all those who deny the Holocaust, practice hate or discriminate; we are the last generation to hear from Holocaust survivors directly and so it is up to us to fulfil the promise of “never again.”
A week later, on a dark cold morning, we departed for Krakow, Poland. Whilst apprehensive of visiting the site of a genocide, my desire to learn had been reinforced.
On arrival at the town of Oświęcim, renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis, we met with London-based Rabbi Shaw. He explained that the town, which once had a majority Jewish population, now had no Jewish community at all – a poignant fact emphasising the human element of the Holocaust; it was clear what had been lost.
Standing upon the heartbreakingly empty site of The Great Synagogue, we heard beautiful but tragic poetry describing the congregation’s horror when they discovered their Synagogue in ruins and the Tora scrolls stolen.
With this in mind, we continued on to Auschwitz One. Our first sight was of the infamous gates that provided false hope to all those who entered, inscribed “Arbeit macht frei” – work sets you free. Over a million people who read those words would never experience freedom again.
Our guide was born in Oświęcim and provided us with an invaluable wealth of knowledge. She discussed the personal difficulties that came with living so close to the ever-present reminder of suffering that is Auschwitz.
The bleak former barracks now house a mass of personal artefacts that had been taken from prisoners upon their arrival: a heap of shoes – hundreds of them – from infants to adults; piles of glasses, combs, and a display of prosthetic limbs. My lingering memory is of a small, red toy car which could have been carried in a young boy’s pocket.
Many families had packed for a hopeful future, anticipating that domestic life would continue. The sorrowful sight of these discarded belongings bought many to tears. These victims were just like you and I; innocent individuals with their own personalities, hopes and dreams.
A corridor displayed pictures of female SS officers enjoying a day off at a picnic, the shadow of Auschwitz still present in the background. This emphasised an uneasy truth; these perpetrators were not too dissimilar to ourselves. Blinded by hatred, and desensitised to their heinous actions, but still human.
Felix Thompson later explained: “Although the sight was right in front of me, I still found it impossible to imagine the scale of the horrific acts that took place only meters away.”
Then it was time. We were shown the gas chambers and the connecting crematorium. The hole in the ceiling, used to pour in the gas, was still present. I have no words for this experience. No words seem enough. No words can explain the injustice or the horrific plight of all those who died. No words are enough.
However, before we left Auschwitz One we were given a reminder that hope is present even in the darkest of times; a room full of pictures of the descendants of survivors. A reminder that Hitler didn’t win and that the Jewish community, and faith, continues.
Down a long straight road, we approached Auschwitz Birkenau, home to the notorious train tracks which carried so many to their untimely deaths.
The scale of this second camp is indescribable. Cattle sheds are arranged in rows, skirted by barbed wire and guard towers for as far as the eye can see. The iconic image of the imposing guard house above the train track is constantly visible. Once more we faced a crematoria, which still housed furnaces.
In the adjacent room, Rabbi Shaw led an impassioned and deeply personal memorial service. He shared concerns that the Holocaust could happen again; his London congregation receive abuse on a daily basis, and he fears for his own children’s future in the UK.
He worries that a country which once fought against fascism, and was a bastion of tolerance, is now showing an ingrained indifference towards different races, religions and political ideologies. He called for us to reach across divides with the acknowledgment that, “we are all human.”
Thanks to Rabbi Shaw we left with a desire to fulfil the promise of “never again,” to fight against prejudice and to show compassion to all.