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Lessons from Auschwitz Project

Written by students Gurkiran Kaur Thandi and Nathaniel Bevan-Brown

Earlier this year, we were given a once in a lifetime opportunity to take part in the Lessons from Auschwitz Project with the Holocaust Educational Trust. The LFA Project aims to increase knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust for young people and to clearly highlight what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable. The project involved attending seminars, hearing a survivor testimony and a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau (former Nazi concentration camp).

We signed up expecting to widen our knowledge and understanding of a period of time we were interested in without realising we was embarking on a personal journey of self-reflection which would challenge our own view of humanity. We want to share some of the things we learnt whilst encouraging others to look beyond the history textbooks and consider how lessons from events from history may still relate to our lives today.

The visit made us re-evaluate many things about our current understanding history, it taught us that to completely understand an event we need to be aware of the personal stories and who it affected. We can truly say that physically seeing objects that were once owned by the victims will stay with us forever. Seeing the mountains of shoes, hair, glasses and bags is one moment in particular shocked us. To be told that the Jewish people were seen as more of a resource for their hair and possessions rather than a human being under that Nazi regime, made us realise the devastating atrocities that mankind is capable of. Our visit to Auschwitz was truly a sobering experience.

In the past, we had always been shocked to learn about the extreme behaviour of the Nazis and struggled to understand how human beings were capable of carrying out such atrocities. I felt as though it was during the seminars that I was able to, for the first time, actually personify the perpetrators and realise that many of them were in fact 'ordinary' people like myself. It made us realise that these people were in fact a product of their society and arguably didn’t have access to a wide range of information about the world like young people do today. At first, I was concerned that this was edging closely to justifying or even perhaps defending the actions of the perpetrators. However, upon reflection, the importance of highlighting such issues has stood out to me and, although it is hard-hitting, it shows that anyone is capable of playing a part, no matter how small, in the near annihilation of a whole society. (‘Perpetrators’ refers to the people who played a part in the complex mechanism of genocide).

This in turn has made us become weary of what our own words or actions could lead to. Anti-Semitism pre-existed the Holocaust and it is astounding to consider that prejudiced thoughts we may hold today, although seemingly minor in comparison to the Holocaust, have the potential to lead to something much worse. It is in this way we can relate this to our own lives today and make sure such comments and 'jokes' are not accepted in our communities.

We decided that assemblies to all age groups in the school and to teachers would be the best way to raise awareness. To make the presentation compelling and hard-hitting, we felt it necessary to include testimonies from survivors and some more recent relevant events- such as more genocides- to inform them that such ordeals can happen again and has happened since. Our main message of this assembly was to challenge all forms of discrimination and prejudice and to emphasise the importance of remembering this historical event to prevent it from happening again.

Although it seemed insignificant at first, one thing that really stood out for us was the birds singing over Birkenau during the memorial service. After the trip, a friend had asked: 'Is it true that birds don't fly over Auschwitz?'. It was at this point that we really understood how many misconceptions we really have about the Holocaust and the concentration camps, and how many of our own preconceived ideas had been challenged during the project. We felt as though it represented how the Nazis did not succeed and life still goes on, which is illustrated by the thriving Jewish communities around the world today.

Keeping this in mind, we would like to set up a memorial in our Sixth Form for the next Holocaust Memorial Day. We want to commemorate all those who lost their lives by creating a tree display with hanging birds each telling a personal story. Until this day, we have created a temporary display which will show a different victim or survivor story each week to encourage people to learn more about individual experiences.