Lessons From Auschwitz

By Caragh Aylett, SJCR President

Last term, myself and two other Durham students took part in the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project, learning about the impact of the Holocaust, visiting the camps, and then reflecting on how we can respond to this in our universities.

We began the day at Auschwitz I, where the statistics of the Holocaust stopped being numbers to me and became people. Seeing a room full of hair, clothes, shoes, glasses, photographs, it was impossible not to think about each individual, to compare them to ourselves, or to members of our families. The museum at Auschwitz I breaks down the well-known statistic of six million deaths into six million individuals who had dreams, hobbies and lives. I think we all left the camp feeling a bit unsure of how to respond and process this information.

We then travelled to Auschwitz II Birkenau – this camp is huge, and its size really shows the scale of the murder. When we arrived at the camp, there was an Israeli school group singing and dancing at the entrance. This came as quite a shock to me after the relative silence of the first camp, and I found it difficult to understand why anyone would want to be anything but silent in a place that was so harrowing. Afterwards a Jewish member of our group explained why the school group acted in the way that they did. It was a useful reminder that everyone responds to these spaces differently and that there’s no ‘right’ way to do so.

For most of the trip the cold was almost unbearable and by the end of the day our exhaustion from such an early flight was beginning to show. Wrapped in my six layers (and knowing that I would nap on the bus to the airport), I was confronted with how horrific and brutal life would have been in the camps, and how it’s so far from my reality that it’s almost impossible to imagine.

Following the trip, we met with the group again in London to reflect on our experiences and discuss how we can respond to it in our universities. I think the most important thing that I learnt is how prevalent anti-Semitism still is today and how regularly anti-Semitic remarks are heard in our universities. This came as a bit of a shock to me and reminded me (not for the first time on this trip) that I’m wrapped in a very comfortable bubble in Durham, which I’m sometimes guilty of not looking outside of. I’m grateful to have had this experience and to be able to use it to raise awareness of these issues.

Photo: Caragh Aylett

Last week we were able to further reflect on our experiences by supporting the Durham Jewish Society in planning their Holocaust Memorial Day event. This was an opportunity to learn more about the Holocaust through a documentary screening as well as raise awareness of anti-Semitism today through a panel session. Next term, we’re hoping to organise another event to raise awareness of the complex issues of anti-Semitism and hate crime more broadly.

If you’ve been affected by any of these issues please know that you can always contact the Assistant Senior Tutor to talk them through and/or share your experience through https://www.durhamsu.com/pincident without having to formally report it. This tool allows a record on hate crime to be kept so approaches to tackling it can be better informed.

Photos by Athena Kung except where otherwise noted

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