Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Catholic Sixth Former's Reflection at the Gates of Auschwitz

Alex and Connor back from Auschwitz
Alex Sarama reflects on his  trip to Auschwitz: It was an unseasonally warm morning at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, on the 18th October – weather not fitting for visiting the greatest symbol of prejudice and intolerance the world has ever encountered. I came to Auschwitz through The Holocaust Educational Trust’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ Project.

The Trust plays a central role in combating anti-Semitism, racism and prejudice in our society today, their work ensuring the Holocaust has a permanent place in our nation’s collective memory. Connor Taylor and I - students at St Peter’s Catholic School in Guildford - were part of 200 sixth form students from across the UK that flew out to Kraków airport to witness the site of 1.5 million deaths - a number so large that it is almost incomprehensible. To many this is just a number - viewing family pictures, children’s shoes and day-to-day objects brought home the fact that these were real people with real lives, families and careers. For many, the reason for being sent to Auschwitz was simply the fact they were born. 1 million Jews killed by the Nazis were sent to their deaths for being born into a religion they did not even choose. I was horrified at the sub-human way victims were sorted and ruthlessly taken to the gas chambers as soon as they arrived at the death camp. One of the most poignant moments was seeing thousands of Jewish children's shoes piled up, a reminder of industrial-scale child murder which led me to question how humanity can be so cruel.

I have always been captivated by History and my particular interest in WWII can no doubt be attributed to my Polish heritage. My grandmother was sent to the notorious Ravensbrück Concentration Camp during the war, while my two grandfathers fought for the Polish army at Monte Cassino and the Warsaw Uprising.

I have had the good fortune of hearing their first-hand accounts, yet I realise we cannot rely forever on their stories, as the years pass and we move further away from these significant war years. It is for this reason that every post-16 student taking part in the visit automatically becomes a ‘Holocaust Ambassador,’ taking the stories of Auschwitz and sharing the experience with various communities around the UK. When there comes a time when no eyewitnesses are left, we – and future generations - will ensure that the memories are kept alive.

It is our aim that awareness of the Holocaust will be augmented through the assemblies and presentations we deliver in the wider community. For Connor and I, this will be done through educating and passing on our experience to younger year groups at St Peter’s. I also had the good fortune to meet the Foreign Affairs Editor of the Jewish Media Group and next summer will write a series of short articles for the paper on books of Jewish History, in which I am particularly interested, beginning with a review of Simon Montefiore’s ‘Jerusalem.’ As a Catholic, I really think this shows how different faiths can take solace in Auschwitz, uniting to promote multi-faith cohesion and together working for the same common good – the preservation of the Holocaust in the nation’s hearts and minds.

It is so important young people are continually educated about the Holocaust. Allowing the memories of these dreadful events to fade would gradually permit prejudice and hatred to rise again, as we can see from the horrors still perpetrated today. To quote what Nick Clegg - the Deputy Prime Minister - said when he accompanied on us on the trip, “Remembering what happens when warped ideologies and prejudice go unchecked is not just a history lesson but the greatest antidote today to anti-Semitism and extremism of all kinds.” Indeed some people say that Auschwitz will never happen again but this is impossible to determine – yet there is evidence that we have not learnt from the historical lessons of the past. We still read in the newspapers about stories of racism, while Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic behaviour is still in existence even today. This proves the importance of the work of the Trust and is by all means something we should continue to support.

It is important that we take a break from our busy day-to-day lives and do something to commemorate Auschwitz’s victims. Customary tradition in the West is to offer a one-minute silence for the deceased. Yet if we offered just one minute for every victim of Auschwitz, our lips would remain sealed for 3 years. However, I implore you to do the opposite and not remain silent – keep the memory of Auschwitz alive so that we remain fully cognizant of the horrors of the past, ensuring that they will not be repeated in the future.

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