Reflections on Lessons from Auschwitz

In 2014, I visited Auschwitz as a sixth-form student on the Lessons from Auschwitz Project.

On 16th October 2019, I visited Auschwitz with students from the North East of the UK in my new role as a Project Coordinator for the Holocaust Educational Trust.

I kept my reflective diary from 2014 and it’s filled with my thoughts, questions and feelings. This time round, my pages are empty, and I feel more lost for words than ever. Since completing the Lessons from Auschwitz Project as a sixth form student, I have endeavoured to enhance my knowledge of the Holocaust. I have studied in Israel and in Hungary with the Holocaust Educational Trust, written an undergraduate dissertation on Holocaust memorials and completed a master’s thesis on Holocaust Education and the problem of living; where I explored the challenge of how we can go on living after our knowledge of the Holocaust. I’ve often attempted to assemble words and ideas so that they resemble some kind of meaning when discussing Auschwitz, but returning after all that learning has rendered me silent.

When I first visited as a student, my understanding of the Holocaust was limited. I followed my educator and walked around Auschwitz mostly silent of mind and voice, just trying to absorb the information, the sights, the atmosphere, as much of what remained as I could. Overwhelmed with information and emotions I was unable to articulate in any coherent or eloquent manner my experience of LFA. However, five years later my Holocaust education has moved on and I entered the gates of Auschwitz this time with a deeper narrative of the Holocaust and a darker ‘imagination’. The sites, sights, images, items and information was both oddly familiar and overwhelmingly alien.

The remnants of mass cruelty, of extreme suffering and murder may just be the framework of the events of history; however, the spaces between the barracks, the tracks, the rubble of crematoria seem to breathe with memories and an intense lingering absence. It overwhelms any semblance of comprehension and any emotion feels inadequate or misplaced. You reside in an abyss and all you can do is ask despairing questions.

As we walked through rooms filled with suitcases, shoes and human hair, our guide kept repeating that it is beyond human imagination. To try and reflect, make sense of and grapple with the history of the Holocaust, to walk through Auschwitz whether as a student visiting for the first time, an academic or educator is, I believe, to be suspended in this ‘beyond’. This chaotic, ineffable space of knowing but not knowing, understanding but not understanding. I have studied the Holocaust as a rupturing in the world and a void. The only way I can even begin to articulate how one feels after visiting Auschwitz and attempting to contemplate the Holocaust for any period of time, is as just this: a rupture. You’re neither at one extreme or the other, it is hard to define the perimeters of what you think you understand or your emotion. You’re just suspended, lost even, in this small space of the Holocaust.

In my postgraduate research on Holocaust education and Jewish philosophy, I attempted to meet Elie Wiesel’s demand of “you must teach us about living!” with a renewed commitment to and affirmation of life. Throughout the visit I started to feel the seeming futility of this endeavour, as the abuses on life became more and more potent.

However, this despondent thought was slowly transformed in a simple, yet beautifully powerful way. During the memorial service, Rabbi Marcus declared that the Holocaust was an attack on difference and that those who perished in the Holocaust were special, just as the students who were present, are special. This affirmation of the innate value and preciousness of life – a value that is permanent and indestructible – became adorned with a new profundity. The Book of Names that dwarfs us in Barrack 27, the photos that mesmerise us and linger in our thoughts, the voices of survivors; all alert us to the power of the name, the power of the face and the power of the voice. In learning with the human quality of those who suffered the Holocaust, the names, faces and voices combine to declare a naming of life. I am reminded of a reflection that was offered in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s appeal video from 2017; “70 years ago 6 million Jews were murdered. When does that stop being relevant?” What is so powerful about this question is that through abhorring the murder of 6 million Jewish individuals, there is an inherent recognition of the value of life that remains constant. Therefore, while visiting Auschwitz and studying the Holocaust is painful, overwhelming and difficult there is still essential space to reaffirm, uplift and protect the value of life. This is something that I would encourage all those who have participated on a Lessons from Auschwitz Project, and all those who will participate in the future, to do. Be committed to life, value it, uplift it, celebrate it and protect it.

Annabel Pattle

Annabel Pattle is one of the Trust's Lessons from Auschwitz Project Coordinators.