Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Blog

'Ordinary People'

On 27th January 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most notorious of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, was liberated. Now, 78 years later, 27th January has been designated as Holocaust Memorial Day, a day dedicated to the millions of people persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust and subsequent genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Darfur. The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 is “Ordinary People.”

Since 1999, the Holocaust Educational Trust has taken over 40,000 pupils and teachers to Poland as part of its Lessons from Auschwitz project, an educational programme focused on keeping the memory of the Holocaust victims alive. Through this project they have created the Ambassador community – a community I am proud to be a part of.

I participated in the project in 2018 along with two hundred other students from Glasgow. We were able to hear the first-hand testimony of Holocaust survivor Eva Clarke BEM, who was one of only three babies born in Mauthausen concentration camp, before flying to Poland to visit the town of Oświęcim to learn about pre-war Jewish life and then visited Auschwitz itself.

The Lessons from Auschwitz Project was not easy for me, but it was invaluable. It was surreal to walk through a place that I had only read about in history textbooks. The Nazis destroyed much of the material evidence of their crimes in the final days of the war, but what remains is stored in Auschwitz I. Prosthetic limbs, pairs of glasses, household items, even one cabinet containing empty Zyklon-B canisters that were used in the gas chambers. I found the room filled with shoes and labelled suitcases particularly powerful. On arrival at the camp, prisoners were given numbers that became their new identities, but numbers don’t wear shoes or neatly print their names on suitcases, ordinary people do. Seeing all those personal items jumbled up together and stacked to the ceiling was just overwhelming. Nobody spoke as the guide showed us the display case full of hair. Prisoners had their heads shaved by the Nazis to stop the spread of lice, but the Nazis also used it to make mattresses and fabrics. Hair is such a personal thing, and to see it all mixed up and piled high, 40,000 people’s worth, is not a sight I will ever forget.

I am an ordinary person. I too have a family and a home and photographs that I treasure. I wear glasses and have brown hair. Both the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust were also ordinary people. It was humans who enabled the Holocaust to take place, and it was humans that suffered because of it. By extension, it is our human duty to ensure it never happens again.

As Ambassadors, we have all had the opportunity to hear from survivors and to view sites of the Holocaust. We, as ordinary people, are now witnesses. There is an aphorism from philosopher George Santayana on display in Auschwitz I which reads, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” As witnesses we must ensure that the world never forgets the Holocaust and the lessons learnt for today.

By Holly Edgar