I was presented with an amazing opportunity to take part in a programme called ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ being run by the Holocaust Education Trust and the Union of Jewish Students.
The LfA programme is all about how we can stop the spread of hate and antisemitism on our campuses, and how we can understand and improve the experience of Jewish students.
This programme consisted of three seminars and a one-day trip to two different camps: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, Birkenau. In the seminars we heard from members of the Union of Jewish Students, we also talked about the definition of the Holocaust and antisemitism, as well as hearing from a Holocaust survivor herself.
I’ve wanted to get this post out for a while now, but I have been taking time to reflect on the value of the trip and how I can translate what I’ve learnt onto our campuses.
On Sunday the 13th of November, I travelled to Gatwick Airport where I flew to Poland with 150 other participants in the programme. The trip was aimed at students and campus leaders which meant that I got to meet many presidents from other student unions, as well as students and staff.
Once we landed in Poland, we made our way to Auschwitz I where we had a guided tour of different blocks that are now being used as exhibition and memorial spaces. There were many elements of the tour that really struck me; the most obvious being the sheer number of belongings that were on show within the barracks. There were signs above the barracks that called these exhibitions ‘Physical Proof of Extermination’.
We also walked through the gas chamber that was used at this camp. This was a moment I will never forget, and one that I don’t think I can share adequately by writing about it. It was extremely moving and the silence, although of course respectful, was laced with so much hurt.
We then made our way to the second camp, Auschwitz Birkenau. It was extremely interesting learning about why this area of land was chosen, and its infrastructural advantages that the Nazi’s used to fuel their hate.
By this time, it was late afternoon; the sun was setting, and it was getting cold and foggy. The atmosphere in Birkenau was an eerie one, and we had an interesting discussion about the way we felt in the space from the perspective of knowing what happened there.
I specifically remember thinking about how cold and tired I was, and then feeling guilty for feeling like this because I had well-fitting shoes, a scarf, and a waterproof coat. Luxuries compared to what the victims of the camp had.
We then ended our time in Auschwitz with a remembrance vigil where we lit candles and had a series of readings by UJS members and sabbatical officers. This felt like a very appropriate way to end the trip.
We then made our way back to the airport.
A large part of this journey for me was learning about the infrastructure of hate and how systems of hate are built. Translating this into how we can make our campus a safe space for all students no matter race, religion or any other protected characteristic is something that I will be working together on with various members of staff and our student community.
We have started working on building communities for different student networks. So far, we have started a mature student’s network and a student faith network. If you want to get involved in these networks, or have ideas of your own and would like some support from us please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the end of the tour, our guide left us with some amazing parting words that have stuck with me. She said, ‘that it is enough to, simply, live.’ If you are struggling, please do reach out. You can go to the library to request a wellbeing drop-in session, or contact the wellbeing team.
If you want to chat about this experience or getting involved with the Union of Jewish Students, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Thank you for reading this far (if you made it), and I hope to hear from you soon.
Stay safe x