Thursday 23 November 2017

Report from Vala, LGBT+ officer from Bristol University Students Union, on UAF trip to Krakow & Auschwitz

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Last week a group of around 50 socialists, trade unionists, students and anti-fascists made our way to Poland for an educational trip organised by Unite Against Fascism. For many of us it was a pilgrimage of sorts, to pay our respects to the victims of fascism, and to learn more about exactly why we say, “never again.” Our trip could not have come at a more opportune time, with Warsaw seeing a 40,000 strong far-right, nationalist march just a week before. It was both saddening and maddening to see a country that has lost so many lives to fascism once again being lured into its clutches.



On our first day we were taken around the historic Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, once home to ¼ of Krakow’s population (some 60-80,000), where now but a few hundred Jewish people live; a living legacy to the horror the Jewish population of Poland suffered. We solemnly walked around the Jewish cemetery, previously ransacked by Nazis for building materials for concentration camps, now rebuilt in monument using the broken tombstones of the dead.

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Symbolic acts of defiance such as this, were what truly struck us most – when we then crossed the river into what was once the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow. Amongst the stories of horror from the ghetto – children being murdered, people being shot down whilst trying to escape – there were also huge acts of resistance.



A united front of resistance fought against the Nazi terror imposed, using both violent and peaceful means. Whilst this never led to a general uprising, as seen in the Warsaw ghetto, their strength in solidarity and courage is something all anti-fascists should embrace today.


Our second day, following talks from David Rosenberg and Donny Gluckstein on the history of Jews in Poland and the build up to the holocaust respectively, we departed for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. This was a harrowing day for us all, which found us crying on the shoulders of our compatriots, who not 24 hours before had been strangers.



Nothing can prepare you for the atrocity of such a place, where the seemingly abstract statistic of 1.3million (recorded) murders becomes so real, when it is presented as children’s shoes and locks of hair. The sheer scale of the Birkenau camp was astounding, with barracks stretched as far as the eye could see. It was only here that we could truly see just how mass murder on an industrial scale could be carried out. This was made so much more real when one of our number was trying to find the barrack that had imprisoned her late mother – an active, anti-Nazi herself.

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What particularly struck many of us, and left a bitter taste, was the striking similarities between the growing anti-Semitism that led up to the Holocaust, and the growing islamophobia we are seeing today. Then, synagogues were desecrated, today it is mosques. Then Jewish women were forced to remove head coverings in the presence of Germans, today Muslim women are having their hijabs ripped off.



The atrocities of the holocaust did not start with Auschwitz, it started with “othering,” with casual racism, with scapegoating. And this is what we are seeing today. I am reminded of a (likely overused) quote from Edmund Burke – “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”



Fascism did not end with the liberation of Auschwitz (something the UK and USA played no role in, despite being aware of its horrors as early as 1943), and it is up to each of us to take a stand when we encounter or witness an act of discrimination. It is only through this that we have any hope of defeating the rising far-right, before it ends up at the gates of a concentration camp once more.



I’d like to share a song our Jewish comrades sang, in Yiddish, in front of the Birkenau memorial; a song of resistance that travelled from the Vilnius ghetto around Nazi-occupied Europe: “Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: we are here, we are here!”

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