On Holocaust Memorial Day - A Guest Post by Holly Edgar
I AM VERY GRATEFUL TO LOCAL STUDENT HOLLY EDGAR FOR THIS EXCELLENT PIECE OF WRITING, WHICH SHOULD GIVE US ALL PAUSE FOR THOUGHT.
“Be the light in the darkness”: How remembering the darkest moments of our past can give us hope for a brighter future.
By Holly Edgar
On 27th January 1945, soldiers from the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most notorious of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp. 76 years later, 27th January is known as Holocaust Memorial Day, a day dedicated to the millions of people persecuted and murdered in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Darfur. And the theme for 2021: “Be the light in the darkness.”
Since 1999, the Holocaust Educational Trust has taken over 37,000 school pupils to Poland as part of its Lessons From Auschwitz project, an educational programme focused on keeping the memory of the Holocaust victims alive. I participated in the project in 2018 along with 200 other students from Glasgow. We met with Eva Clarke, who was one of only three babies born in Mauthausen concentration camp, before flying to Poland to visit the town of Oświęcim and the two main concentration camps: Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Before I went to Poland, 6 million was just a number. The Holocaust was just a historical tragedy, and Auschwitz was a place from the past. It is easy to compartmentalise a tragedy when all you see are facts and figures.
Lessons From Auschwitz was not easy, but it was invaluable. It was surreal to walk through a place that until then had been confined in my mind to history textbooks. The Nazis destroyed much of the material evidence of their crimes in the final days of the war, but what remains is stored in Auschwitz 1. Prosthetic limbs, pairs of glasses, household items, even one cabinet containing empty Zyklon-B canisters that were used in the gas chambers. People brought their lives to the camp and most of them never left. The room filled with shoes and labelled suitcases was particularly powerful: numbers don’t wear shoes or neatly print their names on suitcases, but people do. So many people did. And then seeing all those personal items jumbled up together and stacked to the ceiling was just overwhelming. Nobody spoke as the guide showed us the display case full of hair. Prisoners had their heads shaved by the Nazis to stop the spread of lice, but the Nazis also used it to make mattresses and fabrics. Hair is such a personal thing, and to see it all mixed up and piled high, 40,000 people’s worth, is not a sight I will ever forget.
Auschwitz 1 is home to a reconstructed gas chamber. The air inside was dark and heavy and choking – I could feel the history of the room just by standing there. We were not the only visitors to the camp that day and I was with my group the whole time, but in that chamber I felt alone. After we stepped outside again, I had to stop and take a breath. Because that was not a diagram from a textbook. That was real, and I was utterly horrified.
The first camp has an area of 20 hectares. Auschwitz-Birkenau spanned well over 100 hectares. I’d been trying to process that in my head before we arrived, but nothing prepared me for actually being there. I stood on the trainline and squinted but I couldn’t see the edge of the camp. Just an endless barbed wire fence, and chimney after chimney after chimney. That was when the scale of the Holocaust truly hit me. I don’t know what to call it – despair, anger, or grief don’t go far enough – but I do know that it must never happen again.
At the end of the trainline lies the rubble from the gas chambers. There were 5 crematoria in Birkenau, of which Krema 2 was the largest. 1.3 million people were deported to the Auschwitz camps. Over one million were murdered in the very gas chambers we stood barely two metres from. The world had never felt darker.
We gathered that night, all two hundred of us together, at the end of the line and lit candles. It was dark, it was cold, and I just felt so empty. But there is another thing that sticks in my mind. During the service, I remember looking up into the sky and seeing more stars than I’d ever seen in my life. And that is what being the light in the darkness is all about.
Six million is an unimaginable figure, and because I couldn’t imagine it, I’d struggled to understand the gravity of the Holocaust. I understand it better now. The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is “be the light in the darkness.” As an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust, that means sharing my experiences of the Lessons From Auschwitz project. It means being a witness to the Holocaust, educating myself and educating others about the road to genocide so that together we can prevent future suffering at the hands of hate and prejudice. This duty applies to all of us. We can all become witnesses. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust are hosting a national event online where survivors and witnesses will share their own stories, details of which can be found on their website, and the Trust invite everyone to light a candle at 8pm on 27th January as a memorial to the past, and a promise to the future.
The events of the Holocaust happened over 76 years ago. The number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling, and soon World War II will cease to be a part of living memory. There was an aphorism from philosopher George Santayana on display in Auschwitz 1 which read “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” That is why it is so essential that we remember the Holocaust, its origins, and its consequences. The aim of Lessons From Auschwitz is to create new witnesses to the Holocaust, to light the candle for the next generation. By remembering, we are making a commitment.
(PHOTO: HOLLY EDGAR: the guard tower and trainline of Auschwitz-Birkenau, taken 30/10/18.)