Thursday, 14 July 2011

“Knowledge is bigotry’s worst enemy”: Remembering and learning from The Holocaust

On April 6th 2011, we joined other local students on the Lessons From Auschwitz Project to Poland. Our visit consisted of visiting the Polish town of Oświęcim, later to become known as Auschwitz, as well as the camps at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz Birkenau. Now, three months later, we are still trying to process our experience; the immediate shock and anger of standing on the site where so many lost their lives has not been forgotten, but as time passes our desire to voice what we saw, what we felt, what we feel should be done, is becoming more pronounced.

It is easy to distance ourselves from The Holocaust and to ignore the individual stories, lives and cultures of the victims, instead remembering them only for the way they ended; the systematic destruction of six million Jewish people at Auschwitz. We ourselves were guilty of this before our involvement in the Lessons From Auschwitz Project. However it has become clear that this is the least effective way to ensure that The Holocaust is not forgotten. By allowing it to become just another date in history, another mass of people, we are only encouraging the dehumanisation of The Holocaust which so risks there becoming a time when it is looked upon as acceptable, or when it no longer causes shock over the scale of its destruction. The way to target this, the only effective way to really give the victims the dignity that they were denied, is to remember their stories, to share them, and to learn from them.

We were lucky enough to hear a first-hand account from a Holocaust survivor, Freddie Knoller, about his experiences not only at Auschwitz Birkenau, but his life before his capture in Vienna and Paris. It was amazing that hearing the testimony of just one person could make us understand the true reality and effects of The Holocaust more than any lesson or statistic about it could have. This point is perhaps best demonstrated by an analogy made by Nick Robinson, political editor for the BBC. He argues that numbers have come to mean very little in the modern day; we hear about the recession and the bank bail-outs totaling over £850 billion on nearly a daily basis until the figures no longer have an effect. They eventually become meaningless, something used to shock the audience but not reaching them at a deeper level and this is what is happening to The Holocaust as time passes, and it is what must be avoided.

Some may ask why it is so important to re-humanize The Holocaust. Indeed, we discussed at our Lessons From Auschwitz seminars why we should not simply forgive and forget, rather than dwelling on such an incomprehensibly evil event in our history. The answer is twofold. First, not to do so would risk allowing it to happen again. It may sound cliché, but the Holocaust presents an example of when we really must learn from the mistakes of the past. There are still problems of racial and religious tension prominent in today’s society; groups such as Roma Gypsies, who themselves were targeted during the Holocaust, are often greeted with prejudice in modern society, showing that whilst we may not reach the extremes of the 1930s and 1940s, we are far from having learnt from the Holocaust in our treatment of different racial groups.

The second is that, whilst we may try and convince ourselves that we would have acted differently, ordinary people allowed the Holocaust to happen. It was not just the Nazis who orchestrated it, but normal people, involved at every stage, and who watched as trains filled with Jewish prisoners passed through their local train stations as they made their own way to work. Nick Robinson shared with us the example of his Jewish grandfather, who worked as a doctor and received a letter from a client informing him that he still wished to use his services, but would be entering the surgery through the back door; a man who was willing to let a Jewish man save his life but would not help to save his in return. This, more than ever, shows that it is our duty now to educate ourselves and others about the problems in society, and to speak out about that which we consider to be wrong. Only then can we truly claim to have learnt from Auschwitz.

Here is more on Nick Robinson’s work with the Holocaust Educational Trust and you can read Freddie Knoller’s testimony here.

Many thanks to LD for this post

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