By Zoe UMPLEBY, Regional Ambassador, Holocaust Educational Trust.
Holocaust Memorial Day is not only a time for people to remember those who were murdered in the Holocaust, but it is also a time to honour those who survived against all odds.
I am not Jewish, nor do I have any personal connection to the Holocaust.
I do, however, feel the Shoah, and the murder of Roma, Sinti, political prisoners and the disabled, and the persecution of gay people and others by the Nazis, was a unique event in human history.
I believe my generation has a responsibility to educate others to ensure it never happens again.
In 2011, I went on a one-day visit to the Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project, with 200 other young people from south-west England. I was unsure what to expect – I was no more familiar with the subject matter than any of my peers.
We were, of course, aware that the Shoah was a terrible tragedy of European history, but we knew little of the detail or how it might affect us.
My visit was deeply poignant and affecting in equal measure.
It gave me an insight into the unspeakable treatment of Jewish people and others, and showed how easily humans can turn on each other and lay blame on a minority group while others stand by and watch them suffer. Perhaps my most harrowing memory of the visit was seeing a photograph of a young boy holding hands with his father, smiling into the camera.
I have a similar picture of my dad with my older brother laughing and smiling. That one photo brought the experience much closer to home – how would I feel were my own family ripped apart just like those affected by the Holocaust?
Mankind, often so capable of love, affection and kindness can also harbour such evil and that’s why the terrible circumstances that made the Shoah possible need to be studied by all, regardless of faith or background.
It was an event that affected real people, not just those in photos and history books. People like my friends and I; people with families and friends of their own, who laughed and cried, who had a sense of purpose and being, regardless of religion, race or sexual orientation.
When I returned from Auschwitz-Birkenau, I felt a sense of responsibility to talk about what I had seen and to find ways of sharing it. So, before leaving school, we invited Steven Frank, a Theresienstadt ghetto survivor, to plant a sycamore tree using seeds from trees that had originally grown in the camp.
The response was fantastic, but I wanted to continue to share my experiences with others, in my local community and at university. I was delighted, therefore, to be appointed as an HET Regional Ambassador, representing the South West of England.
My mission, along with other Regional Ambassadors, is to be a champion for Holocaust education and to encourage others to learn the lessons of this dark period of history. My own educational journey continued when I joined my fellow Regional Ambassadors on a week-long study trip to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
The lectures were fascinating, touching on issues such as how to define the Holocaust and discussions on who could be classed as a perpetrator and who a bystander. We also heard the moving testimony of Holocaust survivor Esther Schlesinger and toured the museum memorials.
As an HET Regional Ambassador, I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to better understand and the responsibility to convey to my peers the significance of the Holocaust.
My journey with the Trust and my experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Yad Vashem have greatly inspired me to play a role in helping us all work together today to oppose the same ignorance and prejudice that has led to genocide and such vast human suffering as seen during the Holocaust.
It is vital to honour the lives of the people who survived and those whose lives were lost. I have made a commitment that I will give a voice to the voiceless, those who lost everything in the Holocaust, and survivors such as Esther and Steven. I will help to ensure their legacy is one that will live throughout my generation and beyond.