Holocaust Educational Trust Blog

A space for featured guest bloggers and members of the Holocaust Educational Trust team to comment and reflect on timely issues.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2017: 'Nothing can really prepare you'

In our latest guest blog for Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, Jason Groves, Deputy Political Editor of the Daily Mail, reflects on his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Trust.

It was five years ago now that a colleague first told me I should go to Auschwitz. He had just returned from a trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust and had plainly been deeply affected by the experience.

"You should go", he said. "Everyone should."

At the time I gave a non-committal response, trying to humour him that I understood the importance of it, without ever having any real intention of following through and actually making the trek to Poland.

After all, I knew a bit about the Holocaust, already didn't I? And I'd visited the site of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich long ago. Although when I stopped to think about it, 25 years on, all I really had left of it was a hazy memory of how incongruous it had seemed to be walking round that awful place on such a perfect summer's day.

In any case, it seemed to me that antisemitism was a fairly marginal political issue  I doubt it would have made my top 100 political issues at the time.

Five years on, that judgment looks pretty naive. Few people today would argue that antisemitism is not a live political issue.

Academics can argue about the cause – was it the Israeli crackdown in Gaza in 2014, which, rightly or wrongly, many people in Europe saw as disproportionate? Was it the fallout from the economic crash, which left some looking for a scapegoat for their problems? Or was it something else, such as the rise of social media?

Whatever the reason, events of the last few years have exposed an ugly seam in society.

Who would have thought the Labour Party would have to launch an inquiry into antisemitism in its own ranks or that a Jewish Labour MP would need to move to a safe house after receiving 25,000 hate-filled messages?

Only an idiot would suggest this kind of thing is the sole preserve of the modern Labour Party. After all, a Tory MP had to be reprimanded for organising a Nazi-themed stag do, and the Lib Dems have had their problems.

Then, most shockingly, there was the brutal murder this summer of Labour MP Jo Cox by far-right extremist Thomas Mair. When police raided the killer's home, they found a stash of Nazi memorabilia.

So when the Holocaust Educational Trust asked me if I'd like to join a trip to Auschwitz this autumn, I said yes.

It's not the sort of trip you look forward to, but nothing can really prepare you for the horror of the place, even 70 years after the end of the war.

Who could not be shocked by the vast, faded mounds of human hair shaved off prisoners to manufacture textiles? By the pitiful piles of possessions dragged across Europe by desperate Jewish families who dreamed in vain that they might one day have use for them again? By the tales and photographs of the doctors – doctors! – who split up families with the flick of a hand as they sorted the strong from the weak, who would go directly, unwittingly, to the gas chambers?

I was in a small party of journalists, MPs and civil servants who tagged along with one of the HET's regular trips for schoolchildren – in this case, some 200 teenagers from schools along the south coast.

I had wondered how the teenagers would get on with such an awful subject – would they just cocoon themselves in their mobile phones?

Naturally, they had not dressed warmly enough for the bitter cold of a Polish winter. But I quickly found that many of them were better informed me, perhaps thanks to the pre-trip seminar arranged by the HET. And, encouraged by the trust's excellent educators, they showed they were thinking hard about what we were seeing. Yes, as one girl pointed out, the reason the fleeing Nazis tried to destroy the gas chambers (for me, the most affecting sight of the whole trip) was because on some level they knew how the world would judge their actions.

What really seemed to strike home with them was the way the Nazis has sucked in ordinary people to their perverted project. Rabbi Garson, who we were fortunate to have with us, told a story of how, after the war, a local railway worker was outraged at suggestions he had been complicit in the horror. "But all I did was send a signal that another trainload of Jews was arriving!" he protested.

I reckon those young people will be telling their friends and families about their experiences that day for years – long after the last survivors have passed on. How can that fail to be a good thing?

My friend was right to tell me I should go to Auschwitz. Everyone should.

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