Tuesday 5 December 2017

Lorna Brunstein’s powerful words on UAF educational trip to Krakow & Auschwitz

Image may contain: one or more people, tree and outdoorI signed up for the UAF trip to Auschwitz this year with some apprehension. Both my
parents were Holocaust Survivors and I had already visited Auschwitz twice before, in
1989 with my parents and sister, and then in 2005 with just my mother.
This time was different.

 
My mother, Esther Brunstein, died earlier this year in January 2017 aged 88. She had
been a prominent and powerful public speaker. She ‘found her voice’ in the 90’s when
Holocaust Denial, perpetrated by revisionist ‘historian’, David Irving, reared its ugly
face. She could be silent no longer, in her words: “to deny the Holocaust is to deny my
very existence”.

 
A survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, a slave labour camp in Germany, and
Bergen-Belsen, she campaigned relentlessly on anti-Nazi platforms up and down the
country at every opportunity. It was her mission, to let everyone know what had
happened to her, and to always make connections with contemporary abuses of
human rights – the plight of refugees, asylum seekers, evils of racism, anti Semitism –
and to guard against complacency, warning it could always happen again.
“Always be vigilant, a single act of bullying, name calling, discrimination, can be the
first step that leads to the gates of Auschwitz”.

 

 
Having already been to Auschwitz, one could ask me as to why I wanted to go again –
in fact as some family and friends did.
I thought long and hard, but felt it was fitting and appropriate, in the year of my mothers
death, to revisit that site of horror, and to bear witness, as she could go no more, and
to, maybe, say goodbye.

 

 
My youngest daughter Alicia aged 26, decided to come with me. I was this time going
back as ‘me’ in my own right, as a mother and a daughter. I was of course very
pleased Alicia wanted to come, but anxious and concerned as to how the experience
might affect her.

 

 
Looking back now I know that it was absolutely the right thing for us to do.
We were with a group, around 50 of us, who were an amazing bunch of people, all so
supportive and respectful. We shared the experience together, young and old, and
confronted the unimaginable and unspeakable, drawing strength, solidarity,
and compassion from each other.

 

 

Below, some of the UAF group at AuschwitzImage may contain: 15 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

 

To try to describe the enormity of Auschwitz is really beyond words and although I
thought I was prepared, I was surprised to find that visiting for the third time still did not
enable me to be in any way more prepared for what I saw and felt.
A few significant moments of this visit stand out for me, which I would like to share:

 

 Finding the remains of the site of my mother’s ‘accommodation’ Barrack 8
On our first family visit back in 1989, I remember the confusion and panic my mother
felt when she was frantically looking for barrack 8, to try to anchor a memory, and was
told by the guide that, as a Jew she wouldn’t have been in Auschwitz 1, the work
camp, but in Birkenau, Auschwitz 2, the death camp, a couple of kilometres down the
road.

 

 

 

The 2 camps could not be more different. Auschwitz 1 (Arbeit Macht Frei) is a
museum preserved in time full of exhibits, information and very crowded, whereas
Birkenau a vastly huge, bleak site, has been respectfully left to decay apart from a few
buildings with minimal signage. It was when we arrived at Birkenau the memories for
my mother came flooding back. We didn’t find barrack 8 then, but on this recent visit
our guide was able to point out where it would have stood, and I spent a few moments
there, silently telling my mother we had found it and wishing she could have shared
that moment with me.

 

 
 Standing at the selection point in Birkenau with Alicia
I remember my mother telling me that at the selection point the infamous Dr Mengele
decided her fate and that of her mother with a flick of the thumb.
I stood at that point with Alicia who now at 26, is 10 years older than my mother was
when Mengele made the choice of life for my mum and death for her mum. My
grandmother age 45 was sent directly to the gas chambers. My mother never saw her
again “she did not pass selection for life”.

 

 
For Alicia and I it was a hugely profound moment to go back 73 years later and stand
on that same spot, as mother and daughter, to be there together to bear witness. It
was an immensely powerful affirmation of life in the face of so much unbearable
tragedy.

 

 
 The birch trees by Crematorium 3
A powerful moment was being shown by our guide the birch trees by the ruins of
Crematorium 3, where my grandmother most likely took her last breath of fresh air. I
had not seen this spot before on my previous visits. There was an air of calm and
stillness about it. The trees were beautiful. I looked up at the sky and felt the rasping
wind on my face and with tears welling up inside, thought of the grandmother I never
had the chance to know, and how proud my mother always said she would have been
of me. I left a stone; Alicia and I stood a while, hugged and then walked on.

 

 
 Gathering soil from shoes
A final memory I would like to share was in the coach, on our journey back to the hotel.
I am an artist and I make work that draws from my family history exploring Inherited
Trauma which I believe firmly manifests itself in subsequent generations. I had asked
everyone on the coach on our return if they would scrape some soil off the soles of
their shoes. We collected a fair amount in a plastic bag. Apart from what I carry in my
heart and head, the only other thing that remains and holds a memory for me is the
soil. It carries our history and is a witness.

 

 

Our group walked round the whole site in
the footsteps of my family and all those others who passed through Auschwitz. I have
those remains and I will make an artwork using that soil.

 
Being able to talk about my mum and what she went through I felt gave the trip an
added personal dimension. To contemplate Auschwitz and the enormity of the
genocide through one human story, maybe helped make it feel more ‘real’ for others in
our group and bring it closer to home.
Before leaving, we all sang the Partisan song in Yiddish together – a testament to
hope and resistance in the face of enormous struggle against the odds, see here, https://www.facebook.com/UAFpage/videos/10155073251775814/

 

We left devastated, but afterwards strangely uplifted, with heads held high. Having
gone back with my daughter to the place where my mother only just survived and
where my grandmother tragically didn’t, confirmed for me that I will always, in whatever
way I can, challenge the evils of bigotry and hate.

I will hold onto the ideals and values of my mother’s Bundist socialist upbringing, that
never left her through those darkest days – Equality, Freedom and Justice. That was
her greatest legacy.
Thank you so much to  UAF for letting Alicia and I share the experience with you.

 

Many thanks to Lorna for writing such wonderful words.


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