How a trip to Auschwitz taught university students the meaning of modern antisemitism

150 university student and staff leaders made the trip to the Nazi death camp to understand the Holocaust and learn about antisemitism


How do you get university students to care about antisemitism?

Well, you take them to Auschwitz where one million Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated.

Last month, 150 university student and staff leaders made such a trip as part of a project entitled ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Universities’, run by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) in partnership with the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).

After two seminars the week before to discuss antisemitism, the IHRA definition, the Holocaust, and hearing from survivor Eva Clarke BEM, the campus leaders were off to see the site of the former Nazi death camp for themselves, which is now a museum and memorial. They wanted to learn and understand.

The HET has been running the 'Lessons from Auschwitz' for the past 20 years, taking tens of thousands of teenagers to the death camp. In 2018, the program 'Lessons from Auschwitz Universities' was run for the first time, and given recent high-profile cases of antisemitism on university campuses, and the recent sacking of Shaima Dallali as NUS president following an antisemitism investigation, running the project once again for university staff and students seemed like a necessity.

Abi Lyons, deputy director of cultural inclusion at the University of Bath, told the JC that before the trip, she did not understand contemporary antisemitism, and felt very “naive” about it. The four student union officers with her on the trip agreed; they did not understand antisemitism, nor did they feel comfortable in confronting it, but they wanted to learn.

Despite the 6:30am flight , the mood was jolly, with a school-trip feeling about it. There was general chatter on the plane, and a buzz about the day trip to Europe.

We arrived at Krakow Airport and loaded onto buses for the hour-long drive to the death camp, and the chatter continued as we drew closer, but that did not last.

In small groups, the students and staff were shown around the death camp in excruciating detail. They walked under the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign on the gate, they stood saw the site of the gas chambers where over a million people were executed, they walked up to the ‘wall of death’, they saw the bunks where prisoners were crammed in by the Nazis like vermin, shown the derisory toilet facilities that they could only use once or twice a day... And they were also told how it had happened, the rise of hatred starting with rhetoric, to Kristallnacht, the Nuremberg laws, and the ‘Final Solution’.

Many were in tears as they were shown around the camp, spending time looking at exhibits of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust, looking at the book of names (that practically filled the room), as they struggled to comprehend the sheer scale of the genocide. They saw and felt where extreme antisemitism led less than 100 years ago, and the impact was profound. Most were unable to put into words what they felt during the trip.

The silence on the bus and on the plane back to Gatwick was utterly deafening.

Certain exhibits affected people differently. For some, like UJS president Joel Rosen, the room of suitcases belonging to murdered Jews was deeply painful: “You saw all of these people who had written their names on their suitcases, presumably because you write your name when you believe you're going to find it again. That was crushing.”

For Annabelle Moody, a student at Cambridge University, it was a room containing 4,000 lbs of hair, belonging to victims of the Nazis that were shaved before their murder: “The other objects were obviously really powerful, but because the hair was a part of these people, and seeing the ribbons... There was so much hair, and the scale was really, really shocking."

Ms Moody found the trip “overwhelming” and found the contrast of seeing a place of death and then returning to everyday life quite jarring: “Coming back the next day and just being around people that obviously hadn't had that experience - that was really strange because on the one hand, you're still thinking about your trip and on the other you're just back into your normal life as well. And it kind of felt wrong to be back into your normal life.”

She feels that she has gained an understanding of antisemitism that she never had before: “You get a level of awareness that [the Holocaust] is still impacting people from a family perspective, but also antisemitism is still very prominent on university campuses, and being able to recognise it and have the background to be able to challenge it better, and not feel super uneducated and that it’s not my place [is crucial] because it needs everyone to speak up about it.”

Ms Lyons of Bath University said: “The trip really, really affected me more than I ever thought it was going to. I've never visited a place of death like that before. We were there for about five hours, and it hasn't left me since I've come back, I still feel this sense of sadness and drain. They lost their lives for what?”

She feels a renewed drive to ensure that Jewish students do not have to confront antisemitism alone: “I’m definitely reaching out to our Jewish society just to find out from them, are they facing antisemitism? Are they getting impacted by this, because I genuinely don’t know, and I feel quite naïve that I don’t know. This has absolutely opened my eyes that it’s an area we need to explore and make sure that we’re doing as much as we can on campus.”

For Karen Pollock CBE at the HET, learning, understanding, and allyship are the key aims of the project: “I really believe in allowing people an opportunity to learn and understand. I think most people are good, and you have to give that opportunity and allow people to learn and equip them with ways of how to deal with situations that might just be new or different to them.”

Antisemitism has been with us for centuries, and is once again on the rise. For Pollock, educating a generation on recognising and combatting antisemitism is one of the ways of helping to stem it: “What we're trying to say is by understanding where hate can lead.... the Holocaust didn't start with the gas chambers. It didn't even start with the brick through the window. It started with words, it started with neighbour upon neighbour, in scapegoating. It started with legislation.”

“The people that come on this trip, they're doing it because they recognise that they have leadership roles and a part to play, and I think that's fantastic. They should be credited, acknowledged, and praised for it. But they now need to live up to it. They need to deliver.”

To find out more about the 'Lessons from Auschwitz' project for sixth form students, click here.

For 'Lessons from Auschwitz Universities', keep an eye on the HET website for future opportunities.

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