'We Have Sadly Failed': Lessons From Auschwitz For Holocaust Memorial Day

The locked gates were a poignant reminder that the history lesson we've come for is not just about the past. 

We waited outside as the icy wind swept around the wall of the cemetery. The 800-plus graves inside are the remnant of what was a major Jewish community. We are in the town of Oświęcim in Poland, better known by its German name – Auschwitz.


The iron gates to the graveyard are kept locked today for fear of antisemitic attacks from far-right groups. Two major incidents in recent years have seen swastikas blazoned on the walls and tombstones smashed and desecrated. For the group of around 200 schoolchildren and journalists from London, it was a lesson that hatred of Jews is alive and well despite the lessons of the past.

The trip in October was organised by the Holocaust Education Trust as part of the 'Lessons from Auschwitz' project. Now in its 17th year, the charity takes school groups on one-day trips to the infamous death camp to expose them to the horrors of genocide.

When faced with a figure like 6 million, the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis, or even 1 million, the number killed in the Auschwitz complexes alone, small details help it sink in.

"The one thing that really stood out was when we walked into the room with the pile of hair," said one pupil, Alex Mylonas from the Catholic St Ignatius College in London. "You realise all those people actually existed. It was material evidence of their existence."

Women's hair was shaved off victims after they had been gassed, and used for luxury rugs and cloth back in Germany. One individual's hair weighs about 50 grammes. Seven tonnes was on display.

"I didn't realise it was torture and the extent to which they were tortured," said Dhruvi Patel from The Swaminarayan School. Block 10 in Auschwitz One was used as a "hospital" where Drs Schumann and Clauberg experimented on the mass sterilisation of women. Hundreds died in the process of discovering an effective way to prevent 'undesirable' women from having children. Dr Mengele also used the notorious Auschwitz hospital to carry out his torture experiments on twins, people with dwarfism and people with disabilities. The experiments would last for hours before Mengele ordered his patients to be killed so he could continue with an autopsy.

For another pupil, Oscar Murray from St Ignatius College, it was the specific targeting of Jews that struck him. "It's just the way in which a certain religious community can be wiped out by one particular group," he said. "It's harrowing." In Auschwitz alone, 1.1 million people were killed. One million of them were Jews. Thousands others were also targeted including gypsies, Roma, gay people and political prisoners.

For me it was the sheer efficiency. The "Final Solution" depended on the most advanced technology of the time. The Nazis had killing down to a fine art.

The camp was built near an already bustling Jewish community for ease of access. It was also relatively near the city of Krakow for transport links. Train tracks were built right into the camp and cattle trucks with 150 people in each would transport Jews from all around Europe. Those who survived the journey were lined up immediately on arrival and sent, one by one, either to the right or left. Left meant forced labour. Right meant gas chambers. Up to 2,000 people at a time were told to remove their clothes for a shower and wedged into the underground room. It took about 15 minutes for them to die. Their bodies were then cleared for the next batch.

We walked down the short road from the train to the gas chambers in silence. Even in early October it was bitterly cold and it struck me the fate of those who went left to the labour camp was not much better. A set of thin prison pyjamas and brutal work was a death sentence for many.

As darkness fell over the bleak landscape a Rabbi began a short service of remembrance not far from the largest gas chambers. "We are not condemned to endlessly repeat the mistakes of the past," he told the group of students huddled together for warmth.

"Let us to undertake not to be fearful of those who may look different, those who may think differently, or those who may worship differently. Otherwise I believe we will have sadly failed."

But the locked gates of that cemetery in Poland are emblematic of a wider trend that has hit the UK. January to July 2016 saw a sharp spike in antisemitic incidents, according to data from the Community Security Trust. Wider racial or religiously motivated hate crime soared by 41 per cent, according to a Home Office report.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 is based on the theme of 'How can life go on?' after genocide. One way is not to pass over the slurs and minor incidents that, left unchallenged, become a trend.

After the service we walked back along the railway and out past the imposing tower that guarded the entrance to Auschwitz. Unlike the walk towards the gas chambers, it was not a route many Jews would have taken. One pupil said as left the camp: "We need everyone to learn from that and influence things in our own small way to stop it happening in future."

Another said: "You will always be able to play your role in making sure it doesn't happen again."


Harry Farley is a journalist for Christian Today and tweets @harryfarls