In his Nobel Lecture, Elie Wiesel wrote this: ‘without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates, like a tomb which rejects the living […] It is memory that will save humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.’
I recently visited Poland with a group of Christians from around the UK. The purpose was to engage with aspects of Jewish history in Krakow by learning more about the experience of the Jewish community during the Holocaust, and by visiting Auschwitz.
We toured Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarters, where we sat in the Remuh Synagogue, one of only two still active synagogues in the city. We visited Wavel Castle, where Nazi Governor General Hans Frank had his headquarters. We walked through the area of the city which was turned into the ghetto and from where tens of thousands of Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The former administrative building of Oscar Schindler’s factory now houses an excellent museum dedicated to the history of the Nazi occupation of Krakow. At the site of the former concentration camp of Plaszow, cabbage white butterflies flitted in and out of the branches of small oak trees. A few Jewish headstones, used by the Nazis to lay roads and the foundations of camp huts, are the only evidence of what this peaceful green landscape was once used for.
On the final day of our tour we visited Auschwitz. We walked round both camps in silence for most of the time, punctuated only by the narration of our guide. As we stood at the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gates, a church bell sounded twelve times. It plodded out its daily duty, ringing clearly across from the nearby town, just as it must have done seventy five years ago as men and women walked through these gates, most never to leave.
It is impossible to put into words what it is like to walk round a death camp, feeling physically weighed down by the increasingly heavy knowledge of what took place on this very spot. It is also difficult to convey something of how much the experience of visiting Auschwitz is like nothing else. This is not simply a museum or a place of commemoration. This is a place where people were killed, not—as I have heard people suggest—because of one man’s hatred but because of the hate, indifference, and complicity of countless ordinary individuals.
I know many people who say they cannot visit Auschwitz because it would be too much. I have deep respect for this view. I also understand that many feel uncomfortable with the way in which Auschwitz has become a place that anyone can easily visit, take photographs, or purchase books and postcards.
But this is not a place like any other. And the millions of people who visit Auschwitz every year visit this place for a different reason than any other tourist place. Yes, I felt like some people were not as respectful of the site as they could have been. I was uneasy filing in and out of barracks with not enough time to stop and pause and truly come to terms with where I was. It was uncomfortable knowing that in just a few hours I could leave and travel back to a comfortable hotel room and a delicious meal in a beautiful city.
I also felt encouraged. I was heartened by the length of the queues of visitors—groups, families, students, travellers on their own. Because for every person who visits Auschwitz, there is another person who has seen and who has heard difficult truths.
CCJ’s work in Holocaust education is founded on the belief that Christians need to engage with the challenges of history, both for its own sake and for the sake of making the future the best that it can be. Visiting sites connected to the Holocaust is an essential part of this endeavour. So too is meeting survivors of the Holocaust. We feel very privileged that next month Eva Schloss MBE will speak to alumni of our Yad Vashem programme. Eva survived Auschwitz and her story is an inspiring testimony to the power of making a difference.
At a time when antisemitism has reached record levels in the UK and as around the world hatred is given a platform by the rise of populism and the consent of politicians, those who see, who listen, and who remember history also have a moral responsibility to tell and never to forget.
Rob Thompson, CCJ Programme Manager