On Auschwitz trip, the JC sees a moment of extreme anguish and then reassuring comfort

The JC's Lee Harpin accompanied student leaders and university vice-chancellors on a moving trip to the camp


We are standing inside Block 27 of the Auschwitz death camp on a bitterly cold November afternoon.

Liron Velleman, here in Poland as a Union of Jewish Students former campaigns president, has just discovered the page detailing members of his own family murdered in the Shoah among 4.2 million others identified in The Book Of Names.

Tears stream down Mr Velleman’s face as the devastating reality of Nazi persecution of his own family is spelt out in black ink across too much space on one of the extended white pages that make up the compendium of death.

But in a moment of extreme anguish, comfort is on hand.

Mr Vellemen, a youth and students officer with the Jewish Labour Movement, receives a speedy and reassuring cuddle from the president of the National Union of Students, Shakira Martin.

I overhear the reassuring words uttered by Ms Martin, the Lewisham, south London, born student leader. “This is your family, Liron,” she says. "But it feels, at this moment, as though they are also mine.”

This spontaneous moment was perhaps the most poignant, but not the only significant development as 93 student leaders and sabbatical staff, and the 29 university chancellors, vice-chancellors and chiefs of staff visited the notorious death camps on Monday as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz universities Project.

“Walking through the book of names of victims and seeing pages of my own family history reminded me, and those around me, that this is a deeply personal tragedy as well as one that is felt universally,” Mr Vellemen later told the JC.

The NUS president, who was visiting Auschwitz for a second time, also confessed: “The first time I came here, it was eye-opening to learn so much about the Holocaust and being able to match the stories I’d heard about a school with the reality of the situation.

“But coming here today, what really touched me, and what I am going to be taking away from this trip, is to the sight of my friend seeing the names of his family in the book of 1,600 pages naming all those murdered.

“It showed to me that not only was this something that happened in history and you have duty to never forget, but how it also something that is still very much a reality to people who are close to me and that I care about.”

More than 37,000 A Level students and teachers from across the UK have already visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, but concern about the increase in antisemitic incidents on campuses across the UK  led HET into a partnership with the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) ) to organise the first visit to death camp for representatives of the university sector.

The impressive numbers accepting invitations to take part in the unique event – including representatives from most of the major universities – showed there was clearly an acceptance within the sector of concerns that needed to be addressed.

Karen Pollock, chief executive of HET, said the initiative was intended to “shift thinking and relate to issues of the past and of today.”

She added: “We need to see more engagement between faith and community groups on campuses. We also hope we can offer guidance on where and when there is a need to intervene.”

The Lessons from Auschwitz agenda is an intense and packed one. The day before departure from Stanstead to Krakow, the group met for a pre-visit seminar. 

During the meeting, at least one student representative mentions concerns they have over Israel’s “ethnic cleansing” in Gaza. There is a follow-up seminar to discuss attitudes and opinions after the visit next week.

The packed Titan Airways plane was divided into 10 groups who are each allocated individual HET "educators" to act as official guides during the visit to the Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camps.

Among the university sector gathering, the "educators" who team up with experienced local guides on site prove the real strength of the project.

Walking among some of the most catastrophic and emotionally gut wrenching relics of history, educator Tom Jackson, one of HET’s most experienced sparks discussion and debate among our group.

Before even entering the camps, we stood on what initially seems to be a small hilltop in the town of Oswiecim (the German name for Auschwitz).

Surrounded by two churches, whose bells both toll loudly as Mr Jackson speaks, we learned that the hill we were standing upon once housed the main synagogue before it was destroyed by the Nazis.

We were joined also throughout the day by Rabbi Andrew Shaw who provides a traditional religious perspective, which did not always chime with Mr Jackson's.

In a moment that provokes real thought, again in Auschwitz Block 27, Rabbi Shaw described The Book Of Names of Jewish Holocaust victims as being the “most depressing”  list in history. Mr Jackson interrupted.

He argued that if the Nazis had their way, the list of 4.2 million names in the book would not have been possible as their victims would have slaughtered without all trace.

Later, we were taken to a perimeter fence in the camp to be told Nazi death camp commander Rudolf Höss had lived in the house metres outside the concentration camp site with his wife and children.

We were asked to describe what sort of man could live with his family next to the camp which processed the murder of 12, 000 Jews each day.

The initial answers were those that would be expected to describe a butcher such as Höss, who was eventually hanged on gallows built in the grounds of Auschwitz after confessing to his crimes at Nuremberg.

But it was then also suggested that, while he was alive, the Nazi commander was perhaps the perfect family man with his living arrangements – albeit one ultimately consumed by the murderous ideology of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism.

In one of several lessons, we were asked to take on board throughout day about the speed in which poisonous ideologies can take hold in society if they are not effectively challenged.

During a closing ceremony in Birkenau we heard carefully selected poetry readings from some of the group, and uplifting speeches from HET’s Ms Pollock.

While Rabbi Shaw issued a stern warning about failing to stand up to rising hatred and intolerance – while defending Israel against ever increasingly criticism.

David Davidi-Brown, chief executive of UJS, also delivered another powerful message addressing his identity as a gay Jewish man.

In the rush to leave the horror of Birkenau in time to board our evening flight back to the UK, the mood among the group suggested this Lessons from Auschwitz visit proved successful.

Giles Carden, chief of staff at Lancaster University, told the JC: "I think it’s been extremely moving, and is something I always wanted to do. It’s more relevant than ever today with the rise of extremism you are seeing in the world.

“The project has clearly been a success and I think they should look to expand it.

“You are hearing reports of rising antisemitism, and the university sector is under more scrutiny than ever because of higher fees. Why shouldn’t we be under scrutiny like other sectors?

“It’s really important to educate the younger generation against extremism.”

Salome Dore, Loughborough Students' Union representative, added: “I think it was really good experience, especially at the end during the ceremony when they talked about everything around issues like racism.

“In my role as Welfare and Diversity Officer these are the things I’m having to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

“It was interesting to hear the bigger perspective which makes you realise that when you first hear this stuff – that what could be the end point of it.”

Liron Velleman added it was "an inspirational day that will have wide-reaching impacts on campuses in the UK for years to come".

He said: “From NUS representatives to Students' Unions and Universities, it is now incumbent upon those who bore witness to the horrors that we walked through and learnt about at Auschwitz to make an impact in their own spaces to fight the tide of intolerance and hate.”

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