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Holocaust: A history that should never be forgotten

Olivia Cunningham, ambassador for Holocaust Education Trust, explores the "Torn from Home" theme of this year's Holocaust Memorial Day and her own reaction to Auschwitz-Birkenau

As I left my home on the freezing 4th of November morning in 2015, weary-eyed and barely awake, I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach for what the day ahead would hold. I was making the mammoth journey to Krakow, Poland and back in just one day, to visit one of the most infamous places in history; Auschwitz concentration camp.

“their journey was just one-way; the cold mornings were spent shivering in one thin layer of fabric, and the knot in their stomachs was one of terror, starvation, and loss”

For me, the knot was a result of no breakfast, anxiety about what I was about to experience, and over-tiredness. I knew by midnight I would be back in my cosy bed again, resting for school the next day, with a belly full of food, after a nice steamy shower. What I didn’t know, however, was that the day ahead would change me and the course of my life forever. I was changed by the stories of parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, friends, lovers, business partners, babies, who woke up on a similar morning over 70 years ago, made a similar journey to the same place, had a similar knot in their stomach. But their journey was just one-way; the cold mornings were spent shivering in one thin layer of fabric, and the knot in their stomachs was one of terror, starvation, and loss.

The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day 2019 is “Torn from Home”, described on the Holocaust Memorial Day website; “Torn from home encourages audiences to reflect on how the enforced loss of a safe place to call ‘home’ is part of the trauma faced by anyone experiencing persecution and genocide.” It is particularly important to stress that this is not something exclusive to the atrocities of the Holocaust carried out by the Nazi’s in the second world war, but it is also inclusive of following genocides, such as the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia.

“death in this hell hole did not discriminate”

As you wander around what was Auschwitz 1 concentration camp that has since been transformed into a museum serving as a reminder to the world of the horrific events, the atmosphere is utterly impossible to describe. When faced with the inevitable questions about the visit in school the day after, I stood there, dumbfounded, reaching for words and phrases which don’t exist. Each room felt like it was bursting with souls and sadness, as well as the actual objects it housed; one was full from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with shoes, from tiny baby booties to old man slippers and every style imaginable in between, it hammered home that death in this hell hole did not discriminate.

Another room, which proved for many including myself to be the hardest to face, was one which, behind a huge glass panel, contained more human hair than you could ever imagine being in one place at one time. As I turned into the doorway and saw this sight that was before me, I felt the familiar sting of tears prick the back of my eyes, a sensation that I had experienced so many times that day I barely even recognised it anymore. On this occasion however, the tears flowed, and flowed, and flowed. It felt like I had nothing left in me to cry out, but they carried on from that point until we boarded the plane home (at which point I promptly fell asleep). The experience of being faced with this mountain of stiff hair is like nothing I have ever, or likely will ever, experience again. It was a stark reminder of the personhood of the victims of the atrocities, and how dehumanised they truly were.

Of all the literature about the Holocaust, the one which always leaves a lump in my throat is a poem called Pigtail, by Tadeusz Rozewicz;

When all the women in the transport
had their heads shaved
four workmen with brooms made of birch twigs
swept up
and gathered up the hair

Behind clean glass
the stiff hair lies
of those suffocated in gas chambers
there are pins and side combs
in this hair

The hair is not shot through with light
is not parted by the breeze
is not touched by any hand
or rain or lips

In huge chests
clouds of dry hair
of those suffocated
and a faded plait
a pigtail with a ribbon
pulled at school
by naughty boys.

“remember our fortune of living in freedom and having homes that we can rest our heads in at night, as well as all those whose lives were lost in Genocides of the past”

On this Holocaust Memorial Day, I would ask that we all remember our fortune of living in freedom and having homes that we can rest our heads in at night, as well as all those whose lives were lost in Genocides of the past. If you are looking for a way to keep the memory of the holocaust alive (which is particularly important sadly in the world today), then please simply share this article, or visit https://www.het.org.uk/education/outreach-programme/survivor-stories and learn about some of the incredible survivors. (If you can’t decide where to start, my suggestion would be either Joanna Millan or Zigi Shipper, both of whom I have had the honour to get to know personally and whose stories must never be forgotten.)

Olivia Cunningham

Featured image courtesy of  Daniel ………… via Flickr. Image license found here.

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