Oh did you have a nice time?
This has been the question by people who have never gone to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp have asked me a lot since my return. Those who have been tend to state they have also been and ask me, ‘How did you find it?’
When I get asked this I tend to respond by saying ‘it was very intense’. But no this was not a nice experience, I think nice is definitely the wrong word when you are visiting a place where mass genocide happened, we were not visiting as a holiday.
I suppose the answer is very different of that to which I give to those who have not visited the death camps in Poland. It’s an odd one which is difficult to express the feelings you have about it being there. Finding words for the experience is really hard if I’m honest and I am rarely lost for words, I just can’t understand hate on this level.
I never thought I would be sent on ‘The Lessons from Auschwitz project’ because I am a sabbatical officer and university student. Generally this is an A Level student trip but with growing antisemitism across the country at university campuses, the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Union of Jewish Students, decided to pilot this program where sabbs from all over the country where invited to attend this, the first time a trip for university students union leaders and senior university management. The intent of this visit was to motivating future generations to speak out against intolerance and inspires individuals to consider their responsibilities to their communities. Also to clearly highlight what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable norms within everyday culture. So when this emailed dropped into my account I knew I wanted to go. Mollie (VP Education) and Catherine Lee (Director of Research, Innovation and Enterprise) also expressed interest that they would like to attend.
So off we went a cold Sunday in November, over one hundred sabbs from all over the country and university senior management gathered at a hotel next to Heathrow airport, this first day included some break out discussion groups about Jewish life prior to the Nazi occupation of Europe with each group having its on dedicated guide, Ellie was my groups. Followed by guest speaker and Holocaust survivor, Susan Polock, who is 88 years old. For those interested in more about Susan, she has featured in multiple documentaries and I have added a link at the bottom. Susan is a wildly engaging women and definitely rather feisty, after she had recounted just a small portion of her lived experiences to us, there was a Q&A. Hearing someone speak in person about their experiences is definitely much more powerful than reading about them or even watching video interviews, the atmosphere in the room can have a big impact on emotions.
The programme is based on the motion of 'hearing is not like seeing', for me though I would say it was more hearing and not fully understanding the magnitude of what happened. I think we had maybe one lesson about the Holocaust in year 9 if we weren’t doing history GCSE as kind of a tick box exercise and moved on. So I would say my information about it was limited if not very hazy on actual facts. So there is nothing like seeing rooms filled with so many shoes from real people to give you a smack of reality that each individual who was murdered was that, a person who had a life and a family within a community.
On Monday morning at 5.30am our chartered plane took off for Poland, we were told that there isn’t a correct way to feel about the camps, some cry, some feel anger or grief, some feel nothing, others use it as a place of remembrance and a pilgrimage site. Once we landed we headed off to coaches with our groups and drove to Oswiecim, a town that is next to the concentration camp, which prior to the occupation had a majority population of Jewish people calling it their home, now there are none. I found this place rather cold, I mean this literally as it was freezing but metaphorically as well, there was a define impression of history rewriting going on within this town. This is something I have a very strong distaste for, just because you do not like the facts does not mean they should be altered to what you think are more sympathetic rationalisations for the part that was played by your predecessors. There were over 20 synagogues prior to the occupation, all of which are now churches bar the site of Great Synagogue, not much remains except the foundations after it was torn down. The parts that were played also can be seen in the Polish-Jewish population now, having 3 million before the occupation to only a tiny fraction around 15000 today.
After this we had a prayer ceremony and heard from a rabbi about his own personal family history. There was a fairly charged speak he gave as well but sadly we were running over time and had to be back at the airport for our flight, so many questions from sabbs where left un answered. We returned 10.30 at night, it was a long day and I felt rather numb about it until we got back. I went thanked Ellie our guide who had been with us the whole day, leading us in discussions, questioning us to think and activities with our group, she asked me if I was ok and then promptly burst into tears. Now I am not normally a cryer and to be honest I took myself by surprise. I have really struggled to put into words about my feelings about this trip, maybe which is why it’s taken me so long to finish this blog post. There is so much information to fit into one blog post and so many emotions to process, you can never really understand unless you go and I would strongly recommend everyone to visit at least once.
However the main thing I feel I have learnt for this trip is we have to remind ourselves is that this hate didn’t happen overnight; it was comments, then attitudes that became embedded within culture, that lead to the largest genocide in human history. It’s hard not to see frightening similarities within our own contemporary cultures, whether that is Antisemitism, Xenophobia, Islamophobia or Transphobia etc. I think the problem is people are more concerned about not being perceived as racist or hateful, than standing against and letting it continue. I think this is something we should all be more mindful of, not just here at Solent but everywhere. What do you personally do to challenge these type of comments/behaviour, how do we truly make sure never again is a reality?
The 27th January is National Holocaust Memorial Day- their theme this year is torn from home, alongside this the Holocaust Educational Trust have a new powerful call to action #BeLouder in confronting hatred wherever we find it as a campaign.?
There is a short video story I have put up on our Instagram during the trip @solent_sabb_life
Susan Polock information via HET: https://www.het.org.uk/component/content/article?id=251:survivors-sp