Auschwitz. A single word that conjures up so many emotions. The unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. Murder on an industrial scale that can barely be processed by the mind. The pinnacle of man’s inhumanity to man, woman, child, and grandparent. I thought I knew what Auschwitz was.
To be honest, when the invitation from the Holocaust Educational Trust to go to Auschwitz arrived I didn’t really think I needed to go. I had studied it and knew my history. I remembered from school the grainy black and white video images of shaven headed skeletons. The piles of lifeless bodies. Why did I need to actually go there? Would it be too much?
I was persuaded by learning that 200 young people from schools across the North East would also be attending, including from my own constituency. I remembered the profound effect that learning about the Holocaust had on me as a young person and I wanted to see if I would learn something new or gain a new perspective by seeing it through their eyes. And I am glad I did. What I learned and felt had a huge impact on me. It wasn’t so much new information that I didn’t already know, but that Auschwitz and the horrors of the Holocaust actually became real to me.
The scale – six million Jews murdered – is difficult to comprehend, and black and white videos and photos in a textbook allow a comforting distance from the reality. It was too easy to think that what happened was another time, another place. I remembered thinking as a kid “that could never happen now. We would never allow that to happen, thank goodness we are now more enlightened, more tolerant. We have learnt the lessons”.
It was easy to put Nazi Germany down as an aberration in history, a society that collectively lost it senses and got swept away by a charismatic leader and ideology. But when you visit Auschwitz and see the camp first-hand, walking between the huts and seeing the gas chambers you are forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that this was not a story or a video. It happened. It happened not too far from here and not too long ago. And many, many people made it happen. To organise the logistical operation of moving millions of people across a continent to their deaths took a lot of work and a lots of people. They knew. They were ordinary people, not comic book Nazis, but a mass movement of normal people involved in the systematic murder of others.
So how could this be done? How could a continent collectively turn its back or even facilitate mass murder on this scale? That’s the other lesson that Auschwitz taught me. They were dehumanised. The Nazi’s anti-Semitic propaganda was just the start, creating the climate for the persecution of Europe’s Jewish people and enabling them to be removed from communities. It is easy to close your eyes and to justify this if you make them less than human. The wearing of stars to objectify the individual, and once in camp; the uniform, possessions removed, hair shaved – any means of personal identification taken away.
These are the lessons to learn today – to guard against for ever. The dehumanising of the “other”, scapegoating people for economic or social problems, objectifying the foreigner or the refugee or someone of a different faith, appearance or colour of skin. All of this helps create a climate in which it is easy to turn away and justify man’s inhumanity to man. We have seen in this last year a rise in intolerance and hatred which cannot be dismissed because Auschwitz shows us where it can end.
The most powerful thing at Auschwitz for me was the photographs of the victims. They re-humanised those victims to me, showing real people full of love and hope, laughter and talent. Families at weddings, couples on the beach, children at parties, young people singing. The photos could have been of my own family – the same smiles, the same 1930s hair styles, the same glasses and clothes. When I think of the people who died there now, they are no longer the naked, shaven headed skeletons of the videos. They have names. They have faces. They are people like you and me, or our parents and grandparents.
The young people I went with behaved with the most impressive dignity and thoughtfulness. They gave me great hope that not only did they understand the horrors of the past, but the trip and the education they received meant they would be the ones who would step up in future and challenge the prejudice and hatred which paves the way to those railway lines at Auschwitz where we laid the candles to those who perished.