Auschwitz: How relevant is it in today’s society?
A while ago, I was having a conversation with friends; the Holocaust came up and we began to tentatively discuss it. After a few minutes, one friend, who had been keeping very quiet, looked up and said, slightly confused: “What even is the Holocaust?”… I know: I was completely stunned. She is a relatively sensible person, yet seemed to have no knowledge of this massive historical event. The Holocaust, this significant chunk of world history, this stain on life in the 20th century, and probably one of the most discussed atrocities in the whole of history, had not even registered its existence to her.
I was particularly offended by her comment, due to feeling slightly more acquainted with the event than many other people I know. For, as part of a project engineered by Holocaust Educational Trust, in March 2012 I visited the site of Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
As well as being deeply moved by the horrific personal stories and deathly atmosphere of the place, I found it extremely hard to know how to react to the place as a museum. Looking through some of the few pictures I took from the day, I’m struck by how uncomfortable and serious I look; it’s not like smiling for the camera as a visitor abroad, or in a conventional museum; the whole place demands respect, especially in the photos you take as a visitor. But is it even right to be a visitor, taking snaps for the album, labelling the place as a museum?
The website for Auschwitz Tours calls the place ‘Auschwitz Museum’, however, is this not degrading in some way, displaying the place as an artefact, to thousands of voyeuristic visitors each year, even when it was such an instrument of terror and death, inflicted on so many innocent lives?
To me, Auschwitz seems to be predominately a memorial; a reminder and a tribute to those who suffered throughout the Holocaust, stretching through time and forming valuable and relevant lessons for today. For mass scale crimes do not stop with the Holocaust of 1933 to 1945. There have been many holocausts since- the word itself meaning ‘sacrifice by fire’, of Greek origin, defining ‘wholesale or mass destruction, especially of human life’.
Along with the Holocaust itself, effects of more recent genocides, such as the Srebrenica massacre and Rwanda genocide, are still being felt today, with recent mass reburials in Srebrenica, 17 years after the event, and Rwanda still living with the devastating effects of genocide, almost two decades later.
As well as these, there is the extremely recent example of the Norway attacks, carried out by Anders Breivik, a lone terrorist who launched an attack on innocent civilians; the majority of those targeted being young people attending a Labour Party Youth Camp. At least 77 people were killed in this small scale version of a targeted holocaust.
All of these examples of extreme discrimination in action show just how wrong we are, when we may feel that such wide scale organised destruction as the Holocaust is now removed from anything relevant to 21st century life. Active and violent discrimination is still prevalent in modern civilisation, even though it is the complete opposite to what civilisation should really be.
This is why Auschwitz especially is so relevant, acting as a deterrent to the deterioration of civilisation and humanity. And even if not everyone visits the places, they still promote awareness – this is directly clear from the media for this year.
Awareness was certainly promoted in the run up to Euro 2012, when the England football squad visited Auschwitz (the site is close to where they were based in Krakow). And perhaps it doesn’t matter if this was motivated by a view to promoting good press of the footballers, or was genuinely a meaningful act with the aim to gaining some perspective and promoting true team spirit. For the experience that the footballers themselves appeared to gain and then pass on is surely more valuable than any publicity stunt.
Joe Hart, England goalkeeper, spoke of the first hand testimonies offered by Holocaust survivors, Zigi Shipper and Ben Helfgott: “There was no hate. They weren’t angry. They just had that message about how you can always be a better person. I couldn’t get over them – they were amazing. They spoke about what roles we have as footballers: that a lot of people look up to you, even though we were looking up to them at the time and how you should treat people as you meet them.
“I asked to be one of the players who will go to Auschwitz. Ever since Krakow was chosen as our base, my dad had told me I needed to go and experience this. It’s hard to talk about – I’m not being sick or perverse – but you need to see these things to appreciate them. It’s talked about and you hear people chuck words out like ‘Holocaust’, but you need to know what they are. It gives you more of a feeling of the history of this world.”
Auschwitz is incredibly valuable in order for us to remember what we are capable of as human beings, and how we might cause prevention of such atrocities even through small acts such as promoting tolerance.
The experience of Auschwitz that I had was life changing, as a reminder of the ever-present cruelty in the world in which we live. Yet through this cruelty can come the good that so many try to promote, by using such places as Auschwitz, where we can encourage awareness of what we all are capable of, and promote the place as a deterrent to evils that can only lead to more evils.
The hope can exist, and because we have our memorials and reminders, in them we can also remember the escape from their terrors, and the rebuilding that has been done and will continue on after. The Holocaust can never be remembered enough, and through these constant reminders of evil, we can have constant faith in the escape from evil, and faith in human goodness.Tagged in: Anders Breivik, Auschwitz, concentration camp, discrimination, genocide, holocaust, racism, terrorism, WW2
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