By Sophie Eastaugh
“You’re not Jewish?” a lady on my bus asked me incredulously. “So why are you here?”
I was in Poland for March of the Living last week, the annual gathering of some 11,000 Jews (and a smaller number of Gentiles) who march defiantly from Auschwitz to Birkenau in remembrance of the Shoah.
Together with a group of 204 British Jewish students and seven Holocaust survivors, I’d spent the week visiting sites of murder in its coldest form.
Which was why everyone seemed surprised I’d come. Why bother to learn about sickening human evil that didn’t directly affect me? This seems as logical as saying: don’t worry about your neighbour’s house burning down – at least it wasn’t yours.
This was an important journey in Jewish heritage and identity which, of course, had a deeper personal resonance for my Jewish travel companions. For some survivors, the ghosts of 70 years of silence were buried; for others, family surnames were traced in the enormous book of the dead.
As a non-Jew, going on March of the Living with more than 200 Jewish people taught me more about Jewish history and culture than anything else in my 26 years.
While I’d prepared for harrowing days, I hadn’t reckoned on experiencing such a powerful message of life and hope.
We visited synagogues, from the Baroque synagogue in Lancut to the Moorish-inspired Tempel synagogue in Krakow. Here I had my first experience of a Jewish place of worship. Standing in a gallery beneath the densely adorned ceiling, I was fascinated by the joyful singing and clapping. I spoke to Jewish people of all ages and backgrounds, Holocaust survivors and students from across the religious and political spectrum.
Not only did I learn about the richness and diversity of Jewish life destroyed in the Shoah, but I began to understand the complexity of the Jewish diaspora and the importance of Israel for Jewish people – concepts I had previously struggled to grasp.
Thanks to government funding, the Holocaust Educational Trust does fantastic work in bringing British teenagers to visit Auschwitz – 21,000 students and teachers over the last 14 years. But despite my having studied the Holocaust in A-Level history, it was only by engaging with a group of Jewish people that I really began to comprehend the severe realities of anti-Semitism and the broader issues that Jews face today.
Holocaust educator Clive Lawton told me that four out of the five trips he’s led to Auschwitz have been with non-Jewish people. He echoed my point, saying: “Integrating non-Jews into the Jewish experience is a very different thing.”
Among our group were inspiring individuals who are living proof that non-Jews do care about Jewish issues. Aneesa Riffat, 35, works full-time at Beth-Shalom, the UK’s National Holocaust Centre. She is Muslim.
“The Holocaust is a human issue first and foremost. It’s everybody’s responsibility to remember it,” she said. “I would absolutely love to see more non-Jewish people here.
“I’m bringing my own Muslim contingent next” she added. “If I approached family and friends, I think their first response would be: “It’s got nothing to do with me.’ But if I talked to them about my experiences, I’m certain they’d be interested. There are prominent Muslim leaders in Britain who could really do something about this.”
It is vital that more young people from all backgrounds take part in this journey. The Holocaust was built on brutal racism, so if we are ever to achieve the goal of ‘Never again’, divides must be broken down so that the message of understanding reaches those most deaf to it.
Esther Renee Selman, 25, first visited Auschwitz aged 17. She was so moved by the story of camp survivor Arek Hersh that she decided to do a Masters in Holocaust studies, which she will begin at Israel’s Haifa University later this year.
“If we see the Holocaust through the boundaries of Jewish and non-Jewish, then that’s already a problem because it could happen again. It will go on and on. This tragedy happened to the whole world – we all need to learn from it.”