Reject despair and send message of defiance

By Jay Stoll, February 21, 2013
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Last summer I moved house and found myself clearing out old stuff, going through the attic for things I wanted to keep.

Fighting my way through the choking dust storm that engulfed the room, I came across some old family relics.

What caught my eye was a file labelled in big, black marker with one word: “Austria”. I was confused. We’d never been on a family holiday there and I had been told our ancestors were from some small peasant village in eastern Europe. I proceeded to look through the box.

Initially I came across the immigration documents of my great grandfather, Erich Littman, who had escaped to these shores from Vienna in 1938.

I was fascinated. It appeared that in his late escape, shortly before the vicious Kristallnacht pogrom, Erich had to leave his family behind. Heart-wrenching letters from his mother and brother detailed their “fate beyond description”.

The urgency of the language bowled me over: “Mummy has been able to keep going by the sale of her underwear, but it is not enough for daily bread… what now?”

At this point the dust wasn’t the only thing making me choke up. I later learned that Erich’s family perished in Auschwitz. Humiliated, beaten and eventually gassed, for no other reason than because they were Jewish. If Erich hadn’t escaped, I would not be here.

That evening I received an email from our student union anti-racism officer explaining that he was keen on the idea of running a student union trip to Poland for a tour of Auschwitz.

A combination of the letters I had just read and a tricky year navigating the stresses of running a Jewish Society — and particularly the experience of having my residence vandalised with swastikas — meant it was an extremely welcome initiative.

After nearly seven months of bureaucratic haggling, a 15-strong LSE delegation toured Auschwitz this week. The message this gives is loud and clear: LSE student union stands united not only in remembering atrocities of days gone by, but also firmly in the face of the resurgent threat of fascism in these uncertain economic times.

It was the second time I had been to Auschwitz, but the first trip since unearthing the details of my family’s fate.

Walking through the enormous exhibitions of hair, shoes and glasses, which may just contain the remains of my family, was tough. I take a lot of strength from the words of Elie Wiesel: “Because I remember, I despair. But because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”

By taking proactive steps such as sending this delegation to Poland, LSE student union has chosen to reject despair.

Jay Stoll is a former president of LSE JSoc

Last updated: 11:17am, February 21 2013