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On January 27 1945, the Red Army liberated around 7,000 emaciated prisoners at Auschwitz, the largest of six mass-killing centres the nazis established on Polish soil.
As the Red Army approached, the nazis attempted to destroy evidence of their crimes, then fled, together with 60,000 starving inmates, who they force-marched, in icy temperatures, towards other camps. 15,000 died en route.
Holocaust Memorial Day was first commemorated in Britain in 2001. Its organisers chose to mark it on the the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
This day has added poignancy for me this year because, just a couple of months ago, I was myself walking through the stomach-churning exhibits maintained in Auschwitz I camp, and then standing in the bleak, vast expanse of Birkenau (Auschwitz II camp), by the railway line where Jews deported from the ghettoes had arrived in cattle trucks.
As they disembarked they underwent “selection.” Many from their late teens to mid-thirties, were chosen for slave labour and kept in one line. The others of no utility formed the larger line, selected for death.
I could see the decaying barrack-style huts, built for 250, but often crammed with 750 prisoners, which housed the victims until they were transported for slave labour or exterminated.
Fortunately, I was not there alone but part of a warm and supportive cross-generational, multicultural group of 48 anti-racist activists and trade unionists, including a number of Jews and Muslims.
We came under the auspices of Unite Against Fascism, as part of a four-day educational programme that I helped to plan.
In a world where many people would like Muslims and Jews to be enemies, it was inspiring to be in Poland in a group that brought diaspora Jews together with Muslims from Egyptian, Somali, Pakistani and Bengali backgrounds, to witness together where racism against any group could lead.
Our trip was a chastening reckoning with the past but also a confrontation with racism and fascism in the present.
We visited Auschwitz on day three. In contrast with the day-tripping tourists who throng Auschwitz every day, casually choosing a site of horror over alternative trips to Wieliczka salt mine or Krakow Castle, our group knew that just days before we landed in Poland, 60,000 ultra-nationalists had marched through Warsaw.
The moving forces were neonazi groups whose banners bore slogans such as “Europe will be white” and “Pray for Islamic holocaust.”
Sections of the marchers chanted “Jew-free Poland.” Their counterparts in the neighbouring Czech Republic, and in Hungary and Austria are gaining increasing influence.
Two of my grandparents were Polish-born Jews who had emigrated in the early 1900s. Other Jewish participants on the trip, though, included descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors.
One was Lorna, whose mother and grandmother experienced “selection” at Birkenau. Lorna’s mother lied about her age and was selected for slave labour. Her grandmother, then in her forties, was placed in the other line.
At breakfast on the last day of the trip, one participant told me that his great-grandfather had been in Auschwitz too, as a German guard.
We were based in the beautiful city of Krakow, where, before the Holocaust, 26 per cent of the city’s population were Jews and 16th and 17th century synagogues in the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz remain intact.
The nazis intended to make Krakow a German city. They flattened Warsaw, but left Krakow alone, having isolated and then removed the Jews to a ghetto over the river and a slave labour camp.
On an excellent guided walk through Krakow we saw remnants of the ghetto wall that the nazis had deliberately erected to imitate the shape of Jewish tombstones.
In Krakow today, a pluralistic, outward-looking Jewish community, made up of descendants of survivors and young Poles unearthing and embracing their part-Jewish heritage, is gradually renewing itself. The same is happening in more than a dozen other Polish cities.
Poland had Europe’s largest Jewish community before the war. Its 3.3 million Jews comprised 10 per cent of the entire Polish population.
Around 90 per cent of Poland’s Jews were exterminated, close to a million of them in Auschwitz alone. Auschwitz’s other deportees included an estimated 140,000 (non-Jewish) Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and around 25,000 political prisoners from different national and ethnic groups. The vast majority of these were slaughtered too or died from hunger and maltreatment.
We wanted the participants to know how Europe’s largest Jewish communities lived before the Holocaust as well as understanding the processes led to their deaths.
I described how Poland’s overwhelmingly working-class Jewish community suffered official economic discrimination as well as persecution by the far right through the 1930s and how they formed trade unions to campaign for their rights and fought back physically and ideologically against Polish fascists.
These struggles were led by the Bund, a mass Jewish socialist movement that co-operated closely with the left wing of the Polish Socialist Party.
The processes that led to extermination at Auschwitz began in nazi Germany several years before and were already gaining strength in Poland, Romania and Hungary well before the nazi takeover.
Through talks, walks, museum visits and discussions, we unravelled these processes of stereotyping, labelling, marginalisation, discrimination, exclusion and dehumanisation, as well as desensitisation of the perpetrators.
As we did so, you could hear the past and present colliding — the striking parallels with the Islamophobia, racial profiling and anti-refugee sentiment we know today.
I sensed that shared recognition too when I described people who risked their lives to help persecuted Jews but were so outnumbered by bystanders. I stressed the importance of turning today’s bystanders into “upstanders.”
We acknowledged continuities as well as parallels, such as anti-Roma racism and increasing anti-semitism.
I was reassured to hear participants from diverse backgrounds perceive and condemn the current growth in anti-semitic conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial propaganda which are flooding the internet.
And we talked about different forms of resistance — cultural, spiritual and physical — in ghettoes, by partisans, even in the death camps.
In Auschwitz a plaque commemorates four women who worked as slave labourers in a nazi munitions factory who smuggled gunpowder to the Sonderkommando — prisoners forced to deal with the bodies after the mass gassings.
In October 1944 Sonderkommando members blew up one of the crematoriums at Auschwitz to slow down the death factory.
Just a few days ago, Arkady Vayspapir died in Kiev, Ukraine, the last survivor of 300 escapees from Sobibor death camp after they organised a revolt there in October 1943.
I described the Warsaw Ghetto, which housed nearly 400,000 Jews and several hundred Roma in 1.3 square miles.
By April 1943, most had been deported to the death camps. Perhaps 40,000 remained. But, when the nazis came, with all their firepower to liquidate the ghetto, they were held back for three weeks by a united resistance movement comprising 220 fighters, aged 13 to 40, led by Bundists, communists and left-zionists, using smuggled and improvised weapons.
This was my third visit to Auschwitz. Each time I gain new insights. This time I understood more about the role of Auschwitz as a distribution centre for slave labourers, like Lorna’s mother, alongside the killing machine.
Holocaust Memorial Day has come under close scrutiny from those who feared it would focus exclusively on Jewish suffering. There were other victims and there have been other genocides.
In practice, though, it has incorporated the stories of the nazis’ other victims and more recent genocides, in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
A deeper critique applies the term “Holocaust” to the many millions of African victims of the transatlantic slave trade and argues that they should be commemorated on this day too. We should be wary of engaging in a kind of “oppression Olympics,” but positively look for overlaps and continuities in our experiences in ways that can strengthen our work against all forms of racism and oppression.
Articulating the story of slave labour during the Holocaust might be a way of productively linking African and Jewish victims of slavery, with an estimated 30 million people worldwide who are victims of slavery today.
The nazis envisioned a white supremacist world where “lesser races” were wiped out or enslaved. Their followers still yearn for that today.
In contrast, we must recognise the links that bind us across ethnic and cultural divides, build maximum unity between all minorities targeted by racism and eugenicism and grasp every opportunity to strengthen and celebrate our multicultural society.
One link feels especially moving. In the museum at Auschwitz 1 camp a map shows the many ghettoes, transit camps and prisons from which Jews were transported to Auschwitz. One particularly long line stretches to Oslo. A few hundred Norwegian Jews were rounded up and deported by the nazis, 46 of them transported to Denmark on a German boat called Monte Rosa, then herded on to a train to Auschwitz.
In 1945 the British captured the Monte Rosa and renamed it. Three years after the war, it docked in the Caribbean to collect army servicemen on leave. The British Nationality Act 1948 had just been passed and all people living in Commonwealth countries were granted the right to settle in Britain.
A newspaper advert offered cheap transport on this ship for anybody who wanted to come and work in Britain.
The Monte Rosa had been renamed the Empire Windrush. It arrived in Tilbury with 492 Jamaican immigrants who have contributed enormously to Britain’s multicultural society.
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