Looking through the lens at prejudice

The JC Essay

By Ben Freeman and Jared Ross, December 17, 2012

"Our knowledge has made us cynical. We think too much and feel too little. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness…" - Charlie Chaplin, 'The Great Dictator'

Learn From Yesterday

It is September 23, 2011. Imagine a hotel in Krakow, Poland. Now imagine that hotel stuffed full of Scottish youths, bickering and joking, thrilled with the foreign land that brings them such novelties as sernik (a cheesecake) or paczki (doughnuts). As leaders on an educational trip, these young people were our responsibility. The experience was the catalyst for our project, "From Yesterday, For Tomorrow".

The purpose of the trip was to educate these teenagers about the Holocaust by showing them first-hand the concentration camps. Hard going, certainly, but, as time went on, we began to realise that exposing these young people to the consequences of prejudice had a powerful effect on their emotional development. It became more than just a history lesson. As we watched them process this traumatising example of prejudice and hatred, we saw their empathy and compassion towards one another develop.

Petty squabbles and cruel taunts within the group began to all but dissipate. Witnessing this led us to discuss the importance of social and emotional education. We saw at close quarters how it had such a deep and positive impact on the youths involved - which raised the question: why is this not more widely taught?

We saved our pennies for borscht and shopped for long-johns to combat freezing temperatures

As our visit reinforced, prejudice is the unspoken but recognised evil of our western society. Inside and outside the classroom it undermines the identity of groups and eradicates the confidence of individuals. Children and young people who do not have access to this kind of historical trip are being denied a lesson in acceptance, without which they are at risk of perpetuating the culture of prejudice. Or as philosopher George Santayana put it: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Armed with this realisation, we decided to return to Eastern Europe to widen our knowledge of the Holocaust, the most extreme manifestation of prejudice. We had itchy feet and knew we wanted to use this as a tool to explore the dangers of prejudice, although we were not yet sure how. We made a six-week plan.

Over March and April 2012, we planned to visit Poland, Romania and the Ukraine to investigate the local impact of the Holocaust. We saved our pennies for borscht and shopped for long-johns to combat freezing temperatures. But it was a friend's suggestion that we should film our trip that really captured our imagination. Fancying ourselves the 21st-century successors to Claude Lanzmann, the French film-maker who made the nine-and-a-half hour documentary, Shoah, we picked up some cheap camera equipment and Googled "how to make a documentary". Good luck brought us into contact with a young film-maker, Henry Gordon, who spent many patient hours advising us on Skype. And so we busied ourselves until our departure, oblivious to the fact we were changing the course of our futures.

Live for Today

On March 8, 2012 we flew to Poland and began our journey. We decided to keep a blog as a record, and it became our soapbox over the following weeks. We visited four cities in Poland: Krakow, Warsaw, Lodz and Lublin, making the difficult journeys to six death camps; Chelmno, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau. After Poland, we moved on to Romania, to visit Târgu Mureş and Bucharest, where we arranged to meet and record the stories of six Holocaust survivors. Finally, we organised a visit to the Ukraine, to investigate the impact of the Holocaust in an area far removed from Western Europe in wartime.

Both of us had visited death and concentration camps in our work for the UJIA before, and so we believed ourselves prepared for the trip. Yet it was only once we begun filming that we appreciated the magnitude of our ambition; to make this gigantic tragedy real and accessible to new generations of young people through the eye of a camera lens.

As we moved from camp to camp in Poland, the overwhelming numbers of dead became ever more difficult to visualise. We were left with the perception that the murder of just one innocent is tragedy enough - a thought easy to connect with, and one that brings with it the core message of the need to appreciate the value of each individual.

At Majdanek we stood beside a memorial made of the ashes of victims (estimated to be roughly 80,000). Only, we didn't see ashes; we saw children, families, friends, lovers all heaped together in a cold, soulless mound. It broke our hearts that they had no comfort in their last moments.

At Belzec, we read the story of survivor Chaim Hirszman, who spoke of the things he saw, things that no one should ever have to witness: "A transport of children up to three years of age arrived. The workers were told to dig a big hole into which the children were thrown and buried alive. I cannot forget how the earth rose, until the children suffocated."

As we filmed what we discovered, we questioned how any human being could act so monstrously. Death was everywhere - yet, among the ashes of the slaughter of millions we discovered little sprouting seeds; humanising stories of strength of spirit. We heard stories such as that of Janusz Korczak, a famous author and orphanage founder who protected Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto, and accompanied them in their forced journey all the way to the gas chambers, so staunch was his refusal to abandon the innocent. His story is undeniable proof of the power of love and courage in a world assaulted by bigotry.

Each night in a new hostel, we returned unsettled, uncertain how to feel and how we should feel. Was it unnecessary for us to visit so many death camps, as the same stories echo around the walls of each one? Maybe so. But we wanted to see, touch, feel and pay our respects to the important physical remnants of prejudice. The experience took its toll but thankfully we met many intelligent, supportive people who have devoted their lives to Holocaust education and preservation, and who were vital in giving us the hope we needed to continue.

Arriving in Romania only strengthened our certainty of the need for our educational message about prejudice. We met representatives of the Târgu Mureş Trust, an organisation that aids Holocaust survivors living in poverty. Our guide, Susie, connected us with five survivors in the area - Mrs Yolande Naftali, Dr Eta Tusa, Mrs Suzannah Diamantstein, Mrs Marta Marmor and Mr. Ausch. Mrs Marmor showed us the camp tattoo she had been given - not once, but twice when an error in the first caused the perpetrator to scratch out the original, stripping her of her humanity with thoughtless scores in her skin.

Seeing evidence of the Holocaust in flesh and blood was one of the most moving experiences of our trip. These people suffered to an extent that we today cannot even begin to understand, and meeting them brought home how essential it is to record their testimonies while we still have the chance. We were honoured that they chose to speak to us.

Moving on to Odessa, we immersed ourselves in the physicality of the Eastern European Holocaust, and discovered a shocking trend. In Western Europe, the Nazi operation involved collecting "undesirables" and transporting them by train to remotely located, secret death camps. In Romania and the Ukraine the process was conducted out in the open. Local populations were involved in denouncing "undesirables" and sometimes joined in the beatings. Masses of people were hanged on the main street of Odessa, watched by the community they grew up with. Those who avoided this fate were marched huge distances without sustenance or comfort to death camps in Transnistria, or to ditches that were used as mass graves.

These distinctions are important, not just for historical accuracy but to look at the psychology behind the Holocaust. How did almost entire populations turn against people that they had known all their lives, people with whom they grown up? Such intimidating questions are vitally important for educational discussion.

At the end of filming, as we stood beside the Ukrainian mass grave at Babi-Yar, we realised that, from all the stories we had encountered, all the people we met, everything we had experienced, boiled down to one important question: what really was the cost of the Holocaust? And, looking forward, we pondered another crucial question: what is the continuing cost of prejudice?

Hope For Tomorrow

On April 20, after six weeks of travelling, 11 cities, six train journeys, three missed buses, countless bottles of Nestea iced tea and 94 blog posts, we returned to Glasgow. It was difficult adjusting to home comforts after dwelling so long on the agony of millions. But this was balanced by the messages we brought home from the inspirational people we met: experts in culture, history and community who devote their lives to Holocaust education. Their support made us eager to press on to make our own contribution, as did deciding on our specific educational aim: to educate young people so that they realise the impact that action - and inaction - can have.

Our filming amounted to more than 100 hours of footage, so you can imagine the task we had in editing it down to a 23-minute documentary. We achieved what we wanted, however, highlighting, through stories of the Holocaust and discussions with experts, the human costs of prejudice. We hope that we also demonstrated, through interviews and testimony, that the perpetrators were not monsters, but people just like us who made the choice to commit monstrous acts.

Shaping the documentary helped shape our aspirations for the future. Drawing from our joint background in informal education and hadracha (leadership training) we created FYFT Ltd, an enterprise devoted to creating educational resources to tackle prejudice and provide secondary-school-age youth with essential emotional growth.

The potential for prejudice is in us all, but our approach to social education will encourage young individuals to take responsibility for working to prevent it. We have spent the past five months editing and completing lesson-plans to be used alongside our documentary, and liaised with organisations such as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Educational Trust and various Scottish educational authorities.

Their support and positive feedback has overwhelmed us, and we are amazed that we are already so close to achieving our dream of seeing our programmes used in schools around the country.

Perhaps it is naive to believe that prejudice can be wiped out through a small endeavour but without taking those first hopeful steps we can never reach the ultimate destination, no matter how far off it may appear.

We are proud to be campaigning for a more tolerant, accepting world. Don't we all wish for an existence free of pointless bigotry and unwarranted hatred for the next generation?

Widespread tolerance is the next stage of civilisation and, if nothing else, we aim to start a discussion about it.

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow."
- Albert Einstein

Ben Freeman and Jared Ross will be presenting their story and documentary at the national Limmud conference on December 24. To read the full story of 'From Yesterday, For Tomorrow', visit their blog on fromyesterdayfortomorrow.blogspot.com

Last updated: 10:45am, December 17 2012