Jemma Adams, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant at King’s College London reflects on her recent participation in a new Lessons from Auschwitz Universities Project. Jemma previously led on the development of KCL’s religion & belief policy and continues to as as a link between the EDI & chaplaincy teams at King’s. The Auschwitz Universities Project is a collaboration between the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) and the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a new Lessons from Auschwitz Universities Project, a collaboration between the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) and the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). This universities project is a new initiative following the pattern of HET’s post-16 programme with the aim of bringing together campus leaders, both students and staff, to learn about the Holocaust and antisemitism, visit Auschwitz and reflect on how we can make our campuses safer for Jewish students. This year was the first cohort of the project and since taking part I have been sharing my learning and reflections with other members of the King’s Community. It has also been important to talk to my fellow staff and students about the practical actions we can take at King’s to tackle antisemitism, educate on the Holocaust and ensure our Jewish students and staff are safe and included in our community. In this blog I will share a bit about my experience on the project, my learning and some suggestions for further reading and action.
Please note that the focus of this project and of this blog is the mass murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children during World War Two. This is how the Holocaust is defined by historians, but that is not to deny the suffering of many other marginalised and persecuted groups during this period, including political prisoners, gay men, Sinti and Roma people and disabled people. These groups had their own genocide experience, and many have their own terms to describe this. I encourage you to learn more about this by looking at the links at the end of this blog.
Do you remember when you first learnt about the Holocaust? If you’re anything like me, you will have an array of memories, feelings and facts around this topic that have lodged in your mind. For me there are two key ideas that stuck to me and are still vivid in my memory and emotions. When I learnt about the Holocaust in school, the first thing that entrenched itself in my mind was the idea of being prepared to flee and why not everyone had a suitcase packed and ready to go at the earliest opportunity when oppression and fear came into their lives. I thought how I would have a bag ready to go and imagined the things I would have packed, ready to leave in the night and escape to somewhere safe. The second thing was learning about the separation of families – people being sorted and split upon arrival at the camps and the terror that this must have evoked. My young mind grasped on to that fact and could not comprehend the trauma of being wrenched from the safety of family, separated from a parent and any sense of comfort.
As I engaged in the Lessons From Auschwitz project, these ideas, as key markers in my own learning about the Holocaust, emerged again alongside a wide range of concepts and themes that I was able to unpack and reflect on with my fellow participants. Having not studied the Holocaust since school, I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to expand my understanding of these formative learning points and others.
The project consisted of two pre-webinars where we discussed definitions of the Holocaust and antisemitism, learnt about the history of antisemitism and also had the privilege of hearing the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. This gave us the contextual grounding to prepare for our visit to Auschwitz and start to explore some key themes that emerged throughout the project. We then had a one-day visit to Auschwitz I (the concentration camp) and Auschwitz II (the extermination and slave labour camp) in Poland and were able to then reflect on our experience and next steps in a follow-up webinar. The learning and the impact of this project was broad and there are many concepts I continue to reflect on and which I could write about. I have chosen a few of these themes to share with you here.
The Holocaust was not inevitable
One of these themes, and connected to my childhood thoughts around fleeing the danger, was that the Holocaust was not inevitable. With the privilege of hindsight, we can look back and wonder why Jewish people didn’t escape to safety when their rights started to be removed, when they were excluded from education and government, when their businesses were attacked, when they were violently assaulted, when they were deported from their homes and forced to live in ghettos or when their countries were invaded by the Nazis. We know the final outcome of these persecutions, but people at the time did not, and how could we possibly expect them to imagine the horrendous outcome that did occur. Even the Nazis had not devised the Final Solution when the violence and discrimination began, or even when the first concentration camps were set up. During this project, as we heard and read the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, we learnt how the people experiencing these horrors thought they were facing the worst, that they should not antagonise their aggressors and that it could only get better. The mass murder of millions of Jews was not inevitable. It was a series of decisions that led to the mass murder of Jews; decisions, collaboration and quiet complicity, which leads me to the second theme.
Responsibility, culpability and collaboration
Another key theme we explored in this project was that of responsibility and culpability. Of course, these policies and actions were instigated by the Nazis but murder on this scale was enabled through the collaboration of many other people. The Holocaust relied on the antisemitism that existed within Europe, on other governments handing over their Jewish populations, on other agencies like the railway system transporting Jews to the camps. The multiple decisions of multiple people who chose to take part in these actions. There may have been career implications for those who chose not to take part, but there is not a single case of someone being killed themselves for refusing to have a role in this industrialised murder. It was a choice and people made that choice.
When you enter the buildings at Auschwitz I, the scale of the destruction of human life and the dehumanising process is displayed to you through the objects, clothing and possessions taken off the people who arrived there. Piles of shoes, suitcases, spectacles, disability aids and even human hair cut from the murdered corpses of those gassed to death. Jews were stripped of their identity and tattooed with a number. This dehumanising continued in the treatment they experienced and it’s important to note that half of the Jews killed in the Holocaust died from starvation or being shot – they were seen as subhuman by their murderers, not worthy of any dignity, respect or life.
The industrialisation of murder
The other half of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were killed in the gas chambers. These gas chambers represent the industrialisation of their murder. This method of murder enabled the Nazis to kill vast numbers of people every single day they operated, but it also created a controlling method to sanitise this process and make it easier for the perpetrators. As Jews were herded towards the chambers, they were told they were being taken to have a shower and the gas chambers at Auschwitz II were even built to include fake shower heads to cajole the victims into a false sense of reassurance – to keep them under control, to keep them quiet, to make it easier for those murdering them.
Resistance, resilience and rehumanising
During the project we also learnt about the acts of resistance from those at Auschwitz and other camps and I was struck by the resilience of anyone who even endured one moment in those places. Those who were selected to work rather than be taken straight to the gas chambers had to endure starvation, cramped conditions, extreme weather while wearing nothing but thin pyjamas bare feet, disease, hard labour, being separated from family and in many cases, not knowing if your family were dead or alive. How anyone survived in these conditions is beyond my comprehension. Walking around Auschwitz II was perhaps the coldest experience of my life and my constant thought was how it was possible for the inmates to survive for any length of time there. Despite these conditions and cruel treatment, many carried out acts of resistance – hiding babies born in the camps to try and keep them alive; smuggling in paper and pen to write their stories; sketching the scenes of the camp and hiding them for future liberators to find; enacting spiritual resistance through continuing to pray, holding hope, preserving cultural life and even organising education. These acts of resistance mean the Nazis crimes were recorded and that the stories of the victims were preserved and can be told. A key aim in the project was accessing these stories, learning about the individuals who were murdered, who suffered, who survived, and in doing so rehumanising those who’s humanity had been denied. A part of this process for Jewish people has also been about rethinking the word Holocaust and describing the event with their own Hebrew word. Holocaust means ‘completely burnt sacrifice’ – it is a Greek word which originally described a type of religious sacrifice. The connotations, therefore, of willingness and a sense of martyrdom is extremely problematic and many Jewish people prefer the word Shoah; a Hebrew word that means ‘catastrophe’.
There are so many other things I could share about what I learnt on this project. I hope this has given some sense of the impact of this experience and I would really encourage everyone to read more, learn more and take part in this programme or anything similar if the opportunity arises. We all know something about the Holocaust already, some of us may have studied it extensively, but antisemitism is still very present in our society, as is holocaust denial. We should all take any opportunities we have to remind ourselves of this catastrophic human event and to combat antisemitism and holocaust denial through our own education and the encouragement of others to do the same.
Here are some links and suggestions for actions and learning you can take forward:
- To learn more about Auschwitz and the Holocaust I recommend looking at/listening to:
- Auschwitz Memorial and Museum website and their Twitter account which tweets the about individuals who perished in the Holocaust.
- Holocaust Encyclopedia
- Holocaust Educational Trust teaching resources
- Holocaust Memorial Day Trust
- The Rest is History podcast – episode 291. The Man Who Escaped Auschwitz and episode 292. The Shadow of the Holocaust
- To learn more about antisemitism in our current society and media I recommend Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel – there is both a Book and recent TV documentary.
- To learn about how you can support Jewish members of the King’s community I recommend you look at the Religion and Belief Policy and accompanying Religion and Belief Guidance. These contain information about how to support religious observance and the facilities and provisions that are available at King’s.