In March 2015, I took part in the Lessons From Auschwitz project, along with Alaska Simpson in year 12. The project itself consisted of four parts, an Orientation Seminar on the 1st March, a day-trip to Poland on the 12th March, a follow-up seminar on the 18th March and the Next Steps; this involved us finding a way to share our experiences with our school and community. As a student of English Language and English Literature hoping to study English as part of my university course, I chose to share my experiences through writing, so here it is.
We were put into groups with people from other schools in the Thames Valley and Chiltern area, and this made up the group of people we spent both seminars and the trip to Poland with. The introductory afternoon in London focused on the key concepts behind the historical events we were about to delve further into and getting to know our group through discussions of the ideology behind anti-Semitism and our views on it. This dialogue ended up as a mutual agreement that seeing the places where this mass extermination of over 6,000,000 Jews happened would assist in helping to put our historical investigation into perspective.
One aspect of the Lessons From Auschwitz programme that was mentioned a lot was ‘putting humanity back into the Holocaust’ and I interpreted this as an opportunity to enhance my own knowledge of a period of history that I studied at GCSE with an alternative angle of forming a personal connection to what I was learning by not only visiting the places themselves, but by spending a significant amount of time studying it in depth so that I could contribute to discussions. I also found the question of humanitarianism within this tagline fascinating, as within my study of this area of GCSE I found it difficult to comprehend how something as brutal as the Holocaust could actually have been carried out by human beings. Being able to discuss this angle in a group setting with other people that shared my intrigue allowed me to engage with the viewpoints of others whilst exploring my own.
This really appealed to me as before the project I wanted to gain a wider knowledge of the Holocaust with a focus on humanity and morality. This tied in nicely with a closing comment made by Rabi Marcus at the end of our day in Poland: we were stood at the end of the train tracks that carried victims into the Berkenau Camp, and Rabi Marcus described how one of the questions he gets asked most frequently is ‘where was God in all this?’ but that this is not the question we should be asking. He suggested a more appropriate question would be ‘where was man in all this?’ A combination of Rabi Marcus’ incredibly emotive Jewish prayer and the lighting of our individual commemoration candles along the train track is a moment that will stay with me forever. A group of people stood together, united, on a site where the very bones of humanity were broken.
The trip to Auschwitz and Auschwitz Berkenau felt like a surreal experience to me. I did find it difficult to grapple with the inhumane actions that took place on the same ground that I was standing on but there was a moment at which this reality kicked in and that was when we walked into a room filled with the hair of the victims. Within this mass of a part of our humanity that we take for granted there were pigtails belonging to children and even smaller objects such as hair pins, a relatively insignificant part of our every day life, that really got to me. This room was definitely the bleakest point for me; the rest of Auschwitz seemed very tourist orientated and it frustrated me how the ability to connect with such tragic events became more and more elusive as the plaster on the walls got thicker and more like a museum.
A particularly rewarding part of my Lessons From Auschwitz experience was hearing a survivor testimony from a man named Zigi. His story was truly unbelievable and I listened to it in complete awe of how he has progressed on the path of forgiveness rather than hatred. I think it was inspiring because it seemed to me as though it was hate that caused the Holocaust and therefore nothing but the opposite of hate would make amends and hopefully build a future where nothing of this scale will happen again.
Furthermore, I think that educating young adults about this period of history has a very important result of creating a forgiving and humane generation and this is an aim of the LFA that I truly respect.