It is 71 years since the Holocaust was first uncovered to a war-weary world – on 27 January 1945, to be precise, when the 322nd Rifle Division of the Soviet Army liberated the Concentration and Extermination Camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau from the retreating Nazi forces. Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of a network of camps established by the Nazi occupying forces across Eastern Europe in the early 1940s, contained only about 7,500 prisoners on that day but it had been the site of the death of over 1 million men, women and children, most of them Jewish.
Other camps existed in the region – including Treblinka and Sobibor – but Auschwitz is the most famous. Why? Because it had the highest survival rate. From Treblinka and Sobibor, there was, almost literally, no one left to tell the tale about what life was like there. So it is that Auschwitz has become the symbol of the Holocaust and, since 2005, 27 January has been marked as International Holocaust Memorial Day.
In my Assembly at the beginning of last week, I recalled a visit I made to Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 2008, travelling by train through the birch forests of Poland to the small town of Oświęcim and by bus from the rail station to enter the gates of the Auschwitz complex, with the infamous legend ‘Arbeit macht frei‘ (‘work will set you free’) still emblazoned overhead. The Assembly was an invitation to the girls to consider some of the abiding questions that the event and the site pose for us.
Let us begin, then, with the site. A visit such as this, one might object, is just an example of thanatourism (the form of tourism that focuses on sites of death and killing) – an unhealthy form of tourism ‘motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death.’ The late Professor Gillian Rose, a British philosopher and a member of the committee chosen to advise the Polish authorities on how best to present the site of the camp for the benefit of visitors, wrote about this dilemma. Should Auschwitz-Birkenau be a monument or a museum? It is a delicate balancing act; to leave it as a monument, untouched and unrestored, preserves its integrity but renders it difficult for visitors to interpret but to develop it as a museum, while increasing its educational potential, risks the ‘Disneyfication’ of the site of one of the most atrocious episodes in human history. The biggest danger, Rose believed, was that Holocaust memorialising would become an industry – that morbid voyeurism would take over. Auschwitz would become ‘The Auschwitz Experience’ – with photo-opportunities, coffee shops and souvenirs.
The Holocaust Memorial Trust has done much valuable work in arranging for school students in the UK to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau on subsidised study tours, enabling the generations who are too young to have a very strong direct connection with events through living relatives to gain a better understanding of the Holocaust in its physical setting. However, the recent incident when two British school pupils were arrested for attempting to remove items from the site as memorabilia reminds us that it is difficult to ensure access without risking the degradation of the site and the trivialisation of the events it exists to memorialise.
What, then, of the event itself? Last weekend, the BBC reported that the Parliamentary Education Select Committee had concluded that, although the Government had made teaching about the Holocaust and the lessons it holds for us today a key priority, too few teachers were trained to teach the topic in England. We might think that, given the wealth of information about it available to us now (a Google search yielding over 47 million hits and 23,857 books on the subject being currently available through Amazon) and its relatively high profile in contemporary culture (for example, in film and literature), the deficiency noted by MPs has been over-stated.
Perhaps, though, the very quantity of material is, in fact, part of the problem. Just as it is hard now to see the physical remains of the camp at Sobibor among the trees planted to hide the evidence of the atrocities committed there, so it is hard to see ‘the wood for the trees’ among the plethora of representations of the Holocaust at our fingertips. This is especially true when a number of writers and speakers use the platform of the internet to promote their theory that the Holocaust never took place and was, in fact, the product of an elaborate conspiracy. Last November, for example, a speaker at an anti-capitalist rally in Belfast used the event as a platform to deny the Holocaust. Only one member of the audience had the courage to challenge him.
This raises the important question of how far freedom of speech should extend. Should we censor those people calling themselves historians (as David Irving, British author of website RealHistory!, does) and those organisations with reputable-sounding names, such as the Institute of Historical Review, which argue in public that the Holocaust didn’t actually happen? In some parts of the world, it is against the law to deny the Holocaust. In Austria, for example, David Irving was imprisoned for a year in 2006 for denying the Holocaust in that country and, earlier this month a Hungarian, Ferenc Oroshazi, was sentenced to 3 years’ probation in his home country for the same offence.
UK universities have traditionally been arenas where ideas of every political and confessional complexion could be freely aired and debated, with the idea, fundamental to liberalism, that flawed thinking would not long survive the debating process. In recent years, however, we have seen increasing censorship in UK universities. According to a recent survey, UK institutions have enacted 148 bans, or actions, over the past three academic years. The vast majority have been put into place by Student Unions – 125 bans compared with just 23 put into place by universities – and the most common ones have included the banning of newspapers, songs and societies.
What is particularly disturbing about this trend is the conclusion of the survey’s authors that some of the censorship stems from a fear that students are too impressionable to be exposed to controversial views. If this is so, then schools must begin to ask urgent questions about what they (that is, we) are doing to nourish critical thinking and academic resilience in the face of stridency based on nothing more solid than prejudice and strong emotion or the lazy thinking which relies on unthinking acceptance of generalisations and stereotypes.
Genocide, the Holocaust teaches us, is only possible when a group of people succeeds in reducing another group of people to numbers, objects, a sub-human category. The purpose of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau as a witness is to reverse that dehumanising process, albeit posthumously. The purpose of remembering the victims of the Holocaust is, literally, to re-member them, to put them back together again, as individuals rather than as nameless, faceless statistics so that they cannot be reduced to generalised abstractions or stereotypes.
We do not need to make a journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau to witness the continuing effects of racial and religious hatred. Genocidal violence was not abolished by the events of 27 January 1945, alas. At a time when racism has re-entered the bloodstream of popular culture and national and global politics, it is more important than ever for us to engage with the crucial questions and debates the Holocaust provokes for our own times.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress
Gillian Rose Mourning becomes the Law chapter 1
Independent 18 January 2016