By Douglas Alexander MP, Shadow Foreign Secretary.

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Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander at Auschwitz-Birkenau

I have always been interested in reading history. But earlier this month I learnt something that history books alone can never fully teach.

I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Despite the Holocaust being a central part of my understanding of the events that took place during Second World War Europe, I had never visited the camps.

And to understand the full meaning of any significant event which took place in the past, requires more than simply a passing interest.

But the history that took place in Auschwitz demands not just awareness, but also a responsibility to learn and to understand.

I travelled with a group of young British students to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the trip was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust who take thousands of school students each year to observe, learn and reflect upon the Holocaust.

For me, witnessing the day alongside this group of students made me see the Holocaust through new eyes.

What struck me most was their sense of utter disbelief. They struggled to understand how this could have happened. They could not comprehend why it was allowed to take place. That these crimes were perpetrated in the middle of the 20th Century was simply unfathomable to them.

Their sense of disbelief was in many ways a deeply human response, because anyone who did not live through it, but still claims to know the sheer scale and horror of the Holocaust, has probably not properly understood it.

As I walked through the camps, led by our guide, yet lost in my own thoughts, what really haunted me was not simply the vastness of the complex, but the small symbols of the inhumanity.

You visit a room filled with human hair where you are told that the Nazi’s collected it to be sold and recycled for German uniforms. The sight is as horrific as it is shocking. And in amongst the bundle, you see a single pigtail and you remember that when you hugged your daughter last night before setting off, she too had pigtails.

When I saw the set of keys brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau by the family who expected to return home, I felt the keys in my own pocket, suddenly heavy with a meaning that you would never before have been able to comprehend.

And although I always knew that after the war, the thriving Jewish population of Poland went from 3 million to 25,000, it was when our guide told us of Shimshon Klueger, the last Jew in the town of Auschvitz, who died in 2000 at the age of 72, that suddenly that painful statistic became a personal story.

Nothing that I learned that day made the Holocaust simpler to comprehend.

Because it is not simple.

What it did teach me was that in the very act of trying to understand, we are fulfilling our profound responsibility never to forget.

But we do not remember simply in order to memorialize.

By remembering the horrors of the past, we equip ourselves to better deal with the future.
And the truth is that the threat of anti-Semitism in Europe today is once again real and present.

A recent EU survey found that two-thirds of Jews in Europe feel anti-Semitism is a problem in their country. Three out of four respondents felt anti-Semitism had worsened in the past five years.

I was saddened to learn that here in the UK in 2012, the Community Security Trust reported one of the highest annual number of anti-Semitic attacks for nearly thirty years.

We have too-readily seen from the bitter lessons of history, that economic hardship can prove fertile terrain for a politics of division and hatred to take hold.

So there is a heavy burden of responsibility on democratic politicians to speak up, to call out anti-Semitism for what it is, and to be willing to speak on behalf of a different and more decent politics.

Silence is the co-conspirator of evil in confronting the virus of anti-Semitism in Europe.

The students who I have had the privilege to travel with were a credit to our country in how they conducted themselves and thought deeply about how the history of Poland can be applied to their lives in Britain today.

But the lessons they will draw from the day are lessons we all need to learn. The task of confronting and defeating anti-Semitism is the responsibility of every one of us. Jew and non-Jew alike.

To deny that responsibility is to deny our common humanity.