Wednesday 28 November 2018

Some reflections on UAF educational trip to Krakow and Auschwitz

Image may contain: one or more people, people walking, people standing, tree and outdoor

Above, some of the UAF group at Auschwitz


Though leaden skies


Mark Thomas reflects on this year’s Unite Against Fascism Educational Trip to Poland and
Auschwitz 2018


This year’s UAF trip to Auschwitz was one of the largest in recent years. And it’s not hard to see why
there was such interest in the visit.
Europe at times feels as though it is awash with resurgent far right and fascist forces, some
camouflaged, some open. From France to Austria, Germany to Sweden such forces are gaining
They are rising on a sea of racism whose origin lies too often among the words and deeds of more
mainstream politicians and media.
In Chemnitz, a Nazi led mob hunts foreigners. In Poland, fascists are a part of organising a 200,000
strong march together with the Polish president to mark the 100th anniversary of Polish


In Britain the rapid rise of a street movement around the Democratic Football Lads Alliance and its
offshoots, the fascist Tommy Robinson and supported by Ukip, is an alarming development. (Details of demonstration against Robinson and UKIP, here,
In this toxic brew something else is re-emerging onto the public stage: anti Semitism.
Encouraged by a Donald Trump or a Victor Orban in Hungary, especially through their relentless
demonisation of George Soros, the murderous consequences can be seen in the mass shooting at
the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.


In circumstances such as these, to visit Auschwitz is not simply an act of remembrance. It is also
about the present, about saying that we will learn the lessons of history and fight tooth and nail to
ensure that fascism will never again have the power to conduct the barbarism Auschwitz attests to.Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor
To visit Auschwitz is to bear witness to the greatest crime scene in human history. Of the 1.3 million
people who were forcibly deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz, 1.1 million were murdered there in an
act of industrialised genocide.


Auschwitz is a complex of camps covering a vast area. Auschwitz 1, entered though a gate with
deeply sinister and deceitful slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) slogan over it, was a
former Polish army barracks turned into a slave labour camp by the Nazis.
But it was Auschwitz Birkenau that was the main extermination centre. Around 20 times bigger than
Auschwitz 1, its sheer scale comes as a shock. A third main site, though we didn’t visit it, is
Auschwitz-Monowitz. This supplied slave labour to an IG Farben factory. In addition, over 40 other
“sub-camps” were also built by the Nazis.

(Below, a plaque remembering Sonderkommando resistance)

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Everyone who visits Auschwitz has their own reaction. For myself, three images will stay with me.
First was the shock and sheer horror of seeing in a glass case the length of a long wall, the preserved vast
accumulation of human hair taken by the Nazis from the living and dead at Auschwitz.
A second image is that of Lorna Brunstein, who joined us on the trip, standing by a cattle truck on
the side of the rail line into Birkenau, describing how her mother and grandmother arrived there
after deportation from the Lodz ghetto. Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, sky and outdoorIn a few seconds, an SS officer would have decided their
fate. Lorna’s grandmother was sent to her death, her mother to work as slave labour.
Lorna’s mother, Esther, survived the Holocaust and became a prominent campaigner against the
Nazis, working with the Anti Nazi League, UAF’s predecessor organisation.



A third image is our group, gathered around a memorial at Birkenau written in Yiddish, singing “Zog
nit keyn mol” a song of resistance and defiance (after a brief introduction into Yiddish pronunciation
by David Rosenberg and Julia Bard!). Written by Hirsch Glik in the Vilna ghetto and inspired by news
of the heroic Warsaw ghetto uprising by Jews against Nazi rule in 1943, it become a song taken up by
Jewish partisan groups resisting the Nazis in Eastern Europe.Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor

Image may contain: sky, outdoor and nature

The whole trip is over 4-5 days and combines a number of talks which aim to provide a framework
for a deeper understanding of the historical forces that lead to the Holocaust, how resistance took
place even in the darkest of moments, and how we can challenge the rise of fascism today.
There were talks on Jewish resistance and life in pre-war Poland, Why the Holocaust happened,
Lorna Brunstein discussing in more depth the experiences of her mother and grandmother, and a
final meeting looked at the fight against fascism today. And there was an also an excellent and
informative historical walking tour of Krakow’s Jewish ghetto.Image may contain: sky, twilight and outdoor

Above all it was a collective experience, an act of shared humanity in the face of barbarism.
Another notable feature of the trip was the presence and participation of a number of people whose
own families, and thus themselves, had been profoundly affected by the Holocaust, whether they
had lost family, or grown up with a Holocaust survivor or a Jewish British soldier who helped liberate
Bergen-Belsen. It was a privilege and honour to have them share their stories with us, often a far
from easy emotional act.



Let us leave the last word to Hirsch Glik:
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!
From lands so green with palms to lands all white with snow.
We shall be coming with our anguish and our woe,
And where a spurt of our blood fell on the earth,
There our courage and our spirit have rebirth!
The early morning sun will brighten our day,
And yesterday with our foe will fade away,
But if the sun delays and in the east remains –
This song as motto generations must remain.
This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
It's not a little tune that birds sing overhead,
This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,
With pistols in hand they heeded to the call.

Therefore never say the road now ends for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!

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