Why do I keep going back to Auschwitz?

Standing in Auschwitz on the day of March of the Living 2018 (Photo: Sam Churchill Photography)

I have been to Auschwitz more than 20 times now. It’s not really something I want to put on my CV, in fact its something I repeatedly hate doing.

Yet, here we are, another year and another chance to take a group on March of the Living — a week long educational trip around Poland learning about Jewish history, life before and after World War II, and particularly The Holocaust.

I find myself with mixed emotions, but feel obliged to show more people what happened here.

Every time I visit I find an uncontrollable urge to tell people about it. As if there is only one goal in life — to educate friends, family and strangers about the horrors of the not so distant past.

Particularly so we can learn from it and make the world better.

The survivors who helped to educate our UK delegation for March of the Living UK 2018

One of the guides at Auschwitz and I have become friends. Having learnt and taught about the Holocaust for nearly 20 years he can firmly say that he can see it happening again — perhaps not the same way, but the process. Let me explain:

The whole thing didn’t happen overnight.

The world didn’t go from a normal day to suddenly gassing Jews the next.

It took time. There was a political narrative that slowly penetrated the population and step by step, the world stood by as genocide took place.

It is both simple and extremely complicated how it happened.

Simple because Hitler was just a very charismatic speaker who could give the public someone to blame, and that was the Jews (and all those who didn’t fit the Nazi idea of a super Aryan race). He rose to power on the back of the economic climate and suddenly had a platform for his views. Antisemitism wasn’t new and genocide has happened before so it was only a matter of time before the regime could start doing it themselves in a systematic way.

It is complicated because people are involved and it took many years to happen. There was no plan from the beginning to kill the Jews (not formally).

It started off with a single step: we don’t like these people who seem different so lets stop doing business with them. A trade tactic that we use between countries regularly today — something we think is reasonable.

The Nuremberg laws that classified Jews as different

The next is physical separation. We don’t do business with them so let’s make them live over there and we will live over here. Ghetto’s were created to keep the Jews apart. It was war time with terrible conditions. Everyone was scrounging for themselves and Jews were at the bottom of the pile. This is not a huge step from the last though.

The bridge across the Warsaw Ghetto with high walls to separate the Jews from the non-Jews

Next, well why don’t we make use of these Jews by sending them to work camps to help the war effort? They all live together anyway, so we might as well use them as a resource to help with the war effort. Again, a logical step towards forced labour camps (aka concentration camps).

Workers in Flossenburg concentration camp

Suddenly there are a lot of mouths to feed in one place. Jews again seem to be a drain on the world especially in a time of reduced resources; we don’t care about them because of the constant propaganda and the hard war time life, they are still the scapegoat. There are a lot of old people and young kids who aren’t helping much, so why don’t we kill them — it would make everything a lot easier and we would also get rid of these Jews who no one likes. It will also keep the others in line.

Prisoners hanged at Buchenwald camp

The Holocaust may seem incomprehensible from today’s world, but step by step, Nazi racists created the conditions for this to take place.

Oversimplified

This summary is of course a gross simplification of what actually happened over many years and across many cities and towns in Europe. Each step is actually incredibly complex and hard to fathom in itself; but the point is clear: it is an incredibly slippery slope to fall down when prejudice is present in a society.

If a frog jumps into boiling water it jumps out because of the heat;

but if the frog is in room-temperature water and you boil it, the frog will stay in until it dies.

Today

Within our society people say ‘bad things’ about the other side (whoever they may be) and justifying it by saying, yes this is different, these people are [insert derogatory term like: animals, disgusting, greedy, uneducated].

In our discussions on the March we also have talked about similar issues today. It is not just about Jews.

Muslims, Blacks, Women, Homosexuals are just a few examples.

Of course we have seen front and centre on the news over the past few years of ISIS beheading anyone who does not fit their regime. Another genocide in a different way has been taking place whilst the world stands by yet again.

But ISIS is not alone; Rwanda, Dafur, Cambodia, Srebrenica are just a few of those that have killed millions in total since the Holocaust took place.

Clearly we have not learnt.

We must stand up for ourselves and others when we see intolerance and racism

The President of Poland (Andrzej Dude) sitting next to the President of Israel (Reuven Rivlin) at the March: setting an example for the world (Photo: Sam Churchill Photography)

The world that I have personally grown up in promotes the idea of treating others how you would like to be treated yourself.

However I am aware, and have witnessed a hatred towards those who are on the other side. From generalisations that all terrorists are Muslim, prejudice against Blacks, intolerance for homosexuals, all the way down to the left/right wing divide that is so strong in the world today (see Brexit / Trump etc…).

There is a friction in society where we can’t seem to understand that others can have different opinions and beliefs and even different types of lives to us.

We need to be tolerant of each other. So long as there is no harm done by either side.

One of the sites we see on the March is the grave of Ludwig Zamenhof (1858–1917) in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. He created a language called Esperanto with the goal to unite people, believing that if we could really communicate with one another and understand each other fully, then wars would not happen. A beautiful idea, but unfortunately it hasn’t taken off.

The beautiful grave of Zamenhof

Education is part of the answer

Education may not be the complete cure for preventing genocide, however it is definitely part of the solution and is vital.

March of the Living UK is run by a man called Scott Saunders who has set his trip up to have a focus of education. There is no political agenda, there is no forced way of thinking; the facts, testimony and sites are visited and explained by trained educators. The participants are left to work out what it means for them.

This is the way that all education should be. We should derive values for ourselves after understanding facts. Discussions help aid that decision making process, but you are free to make up your own mind.

I would like to thank Scott and the whole March of the Living UK team by leading as an example of how the world can become better and more tolerant.

Scott leading the group through Auschwitz together with the Survivors and the UK delegation (Photo: Sam Churchill Photography)

We also have the benefit of having survivors stories told to us in person. A survivor (Arie Shilansky) originally from Lithuania who survived Stutthof and Dachau camp joined our group for the week and shared his extraordinary experience with all of our participants hanging on every word.

Arie explaining his own experience being herded off the cattle car after it was finally opened from the outside after days of travel without any stops or breaks (Photo: Sam Churchill Photography)

I am continually overwhelmed that the story for the Jews was the same across such a large geographical location. Arie was born in Lithuania but the treatment he received and the conditions he was put under were so similar, if not identical, to those who were in other concentration and death camps that the Nazis set up, across Germany, Poland and Ukraine.

There is endless thanks to the survivors for continually revisiting the trauma of their past and sharing their story so that we can learn.

“Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness”

Elie Wiesel 1928–2016

I am continually inspired by the educators and participants on the March itself and can only urge you as a reader to find out more; read more, learn more, listen to survivors testimonies online and in person where you can so that we never forget.

The gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau on the day of the March (Photo: Sam Churchill Photography)

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Robert Desmond

Software Consultant, Keen Cyclist passionate about Holocaust Education