This has been the second time in my life I’ve visited the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I feel blessed to have had the privilege to do so once again.
In the few days since my return, I’ve been reflecting upon and attempting to digest all I have witnessed. There are some horrors, so unspeakable, they feel almost impossible to comprehend.
There is sometimes a natural, initial reaction to turn the other way in disgust; to reject thoughts of such deeds, which feel so contrary to any basic form of human compassion. However, I’m sure I speak for all of the 93 UK education leaders who took part in the trip, when I say that it’s impossible to forget. Nor should we want to. We must never forget.
Chiefly amongst the images that will stay with me forever are those of the everyday items. Of the shoes and the spectacles, all marked with the names of their owners. It was a stark reminder that of course, these were people: not just nameless victims or statistics.
In that moment I attempted to imagine myself in that situation: to be one amongst thousands, shivering in the cold and the damp, subjected to the most inhumane of conditions. Family members torn away, never to be seen again.
It was at that moment I realised that for others on the trip, hardly any imagination would be required. It was all too real.
It was upon witnessing a friend who, upon seeing their family name amongst the victims, simply broke down into tears, that a very important message was brought home to me.
This wasn’t some imagined horror, it was a very real crime. It was committed by humans, upon fellow humans, as the natural conclusion to a tolerance of systematic hate and discriminatory violence. For my Jewish friends, it is very real part of a living, breathing, shared history of experience.
I said during the trip that I was not the simply to as an observer. That I will refuse to be a bystander.
We all have a duty to ensure that the story of the survivors lives on, but our responsibilities do not stop there. We all have an obligation to fight antisemitism and to expose it in all of its manifestations.
In a world that feels decisively less tolerant, in which fascism once again rears its ugly head, it really is the burden of our generation to stand up to those who trade in hate and prejudice. To speak out and challenge intolerant behaviour whenever and wherever we find it.
I will do what is in my power to ensure that Jewish students feel safe and supported at university. To stamp out antisemitism on our campuses once and for all.
I commend the government for funding this visit – it has had a profound impact on myself and all of us who were lucky enough to take part. My hope is that this programme can be expanded into the future, so that even more student leaders and young people receive such an opportunity to ensure that we never forget the lessons of history.
Only then can we truly say never again and mean it.
- Shakira Martin is the president of the National Union of Students