Suleman Nagdi MBE DL of the Federation of Muslim Organisations reflects on the experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau with young people from across the West Midlands, as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust's Lessons from Auschwitz Project
History is a topic that fascinates many of us and we choose to pursue this interest through reading about history. However, as deeply enriching as the reading of history is, the experience of visiting the scene of where history has been made is an altogether different experience as it imbues us with a sense of feeling and perspective that we may not always gain when reading history, no matter how well it is written.
I have had the fortune and privilege of visiting many places where history has been made. In particular, my visit to Robben Island in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, was truly awe-inspiring. But nothing could prepare me for the mental shock that was my visit to Auschwitz. I recently undertook a journey which brought me face to face with one of the most appalling human tragedies of the 20th century. I was invited to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland where a great many innocent Jewish men, women and children were murdered in cold blood during World War II. It was a journey that was marked with an awakening – the realisation of the depth of hatred that can infiltrate the human psyche. It left me filled with hopelessness and despair for those who suffered so tragically, and this was quickly followed by an absolute and resolute determination to play as great a part as I can in all social movements which oppose such harrowing divisions between people.
As soon as I stepped inside Auschwitz I suffered a great sense of hopelessness and despair. I kept thinking and asking myself ‘can such a place of evil have existed?’ My mind felt as empty as the desolate spaces within Auschwitz which were once filled with the screams of human agony. It was the most humbling of experiences.
Everything in Auschwitz from the barracks, chimneys, and the crematorium that were the apparatus used to exterminate people, were a stark reminder of what man can do to his fellow man. The most heart-breaking aspect of the Jewish murders was the failure to allow them dignity in death. The victims received no funeral rights, and thus they were even denied their humanity in death.
Human hair, spectacles, artificial limbs, suitcases, baby clothing, thousands of shoes as well as countless other possessions snatched away still remain there, never to be reunited with their owners. The senseless human evil left me with the most absolute sense of emptiness and memories of the sheer size of these death camps will never leave me.
The tragedy of the Holocaust led the United Nations to declare ‘never again’. Despairingly, we have not lived up to this and Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia again witnessed the genocide of millions. The Holocaust Educational Trust organises trips to Poland to keep the memory of what happened in Auschwitz alive, so that it may never again be repeated. At a time when we are seeing sectarian divisions on the rise even here in Britain, this work becomes all the more vital. We need not look far to be reminded of how these divisions can separate us. In Bosnia, the mere Southern tip of Europe, genocide occurred when society fell apart. Angelina Jolie’s latest film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, portrays the horror and loss suffered by people when their societies break down.
Reminders like these are necessary for us to recognise the value of our common humanity over and above our superficial divisions. Before my trip to Auschwitz, the history of the World War Two was rooted in text books. However, this visit enabled me to be transported into that history; leaving me with a depth of feeling and perspective on it that was previously missing. Nothing could prepare me for the mental shock that was awaiting me.
On my return to Leicester, my feelings of sadness at the tragedies of Auschwitz have left me more determined to continue the work I have been engaged in most of my life. Looking after the social welfare of the whole community in which I have lived; so that all those living together may live together in peace and harmony. My journey to Auschwitz has left me with an understanding of what can happen in the world when we no longer see each other as human beings.