Walking through the gates of the first Auschwitz camp was a genuinely harrowing experience. I quickly realised it is true what they tell you, no birds fly into Auschwitz and on the day we went it snowed heavily, creating an eerie silence across the camp.
What struck me was how small the first camp is and that only became apparent when we went to the second camp. Auschwitz-Birkenau is apparently 20 times the size of Auschwitz I. When it began to go dark we were walking through the woods near the destroyed crematorium and I felt like every part of my body was telling me to get out of there. It struck us all when we were reminded we were walking on a mass grave.
The most difficult moment on the trip for me was walking into the part of the museum where people’s belongings are on display. An image not often one to be seen online is that of people’s suitcases, each one has a carefully hand-written name on it.
The Jewish people were deceived and told to bring belongings. These names were carefully painted on so not to get lost or confused with another person’s. For me this symbolises the uniqueness and difference between every single person who passed through Auschwitz. People also brought shoe polish to make sure they stayed smart and tidy.
Each individual had a personality, dreams, fears and hopes for the future, just like us. We often focus (quite rightly) on the groupings of people at the camps for example Jews, Gypsies, disabled people but too often we forget the individuality and humanity of each and every person there.
That is what made it hard to process, every single person there was just like me and you – and many would have gone on to impact the world if they were not so carelessly murdered.
At the end of the day Rabbi Garson gave a blessing. As we stood in the pitch black of a snowy Auschwitz-Birkenau we remembered those who had died and brought ourselves back into the present. We have a responsibility to become the next generation of storytellers because soon there will be no survivors left.
Antisemitism is unfortunately still rife in our communities. During my term on the Labour Party’s NEC it has not been an easy time for our Jewish members. After three reports and many suspensions later, many Jewish members still feel unable to participate. Too many in our party seem to believe that antisemitism doesn’t exist, and we need to change that narrative. The Jewish Labour Movement in particular have done amazing things to help this, but there is still so much more to be done.
“We learn from history that we do not learn from history” is a quote that makes me fearful of the future if we allow antisemitism to go unpunished in whatever form it arises. I am, however, confident that by working with organisations such as the Jewish Labour Movement, Union of Jewish Students and Holocaust Educational Trust we can combat this – through training Labour members, taking hundreds of student leaders to Auschwitz, and calling out antisemitism whenever and wherever we see it.