A Contemporary Reflection on Auschwitz

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Auschwitz-Birkenau is a difficult place to comprehend. Standing in front of what seems to be endless rows of cow sheds, it is almost impossible to imagine tens of thousands of people crowded into this claustrophobic place. I went to Auschwitz with a reasonable knowledge of the Holocaust; however, I left this place more confused than when I arrived. As a human, how is it possible to keep up to five hundred people in a shed designed to fit fifty horses? As a human, how is it possible to deny the right of food, health and sanitation? As a human, how is it possible to separate families before mercilessly sending them to a gas chamber?

We can distance ourselves from these events of the past because we did not live during them. We have the ability to look upon people in our history and label them ‘monsters’ but doing this takes away from the fact that they were human. Just like you. Just like me. Humans have proved on many occasions that we are capable of such atrocities. The Holocaust is regularly referenced, but it would be as easy to talk about crimes against humanity in the Balkans, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda or the mass eviction of the Rohingya.

However, we seem to have the tendency to look at the end result without observing the events which led up to it. People forget that the Holocaust was not something which happened instantaneously with the decision of one madman; rather, it was a calculated genocide which grew in scale and significance over the span of more than a decade.

In the 1900s, anti-Semitic feeling had been present in Europe for hundreds of years as Jews were blamed for events completely unrelated to them. This xenophobia intensified following Germany’s defeat in World War One and Hitler harnessed this hatred to propel himself into power by 1933. Therefore, even before the Nazis had any form of executive power, they were already laying the foundations for mass murder. Then, in the years after taking power, anti-Semitic propaganda began to increase in volume and acts of violence become more severe, culminating in Kristallnacht on the 9 November 1938 as hundreds of Jews were killed, arrested and assaulted. Jews became an increasingly alienated ‘member’ of society as more and more rights were stripped from them. Then, only under the cover of war, did the Nazis begin to kill on the scale that would lead to over six million deaths.

It is clear to see that Auschwitz-Birkenau and other such camps were not created straight away. Rather, years upon years of conditioning society to become less tolerant and more hateful allowed this atrocity to take place.

I question whether we are complacent in our society right now, blatantly assuming that we will never reach the levels of our predecessors simply because we have seen what they have done. Arguably, if we have truly learnt what went wrong in the past then we would not be where we are right now. In America, President Trump was elected on a platform calling for the mass-exclusion of races; in Britain, a prominent cause for Brexit was the fear of migrants and the effect of them on our society. In America, thousands joined the riots in Charlottesville as right-wing activism surges across all age groups; in Britain, hateful and combative rhetoric is only becoming more commonplace in our political sphere.

Thankfully, our culture has not yet descended into the pure, undiluted hatred which Nazi Germany did over the course of the 1930s and 1940s. However, it is arrogant to assume that it is impossible for us to reach this same place. For me, it is evident to see how some of the same social trends which infiltrated Germany many decades ago are also threatening to infiltrate our society.

I began by mentioning how the perpetrators of the Holocaust were human. Walking around Auschwitz, I hoped that I would not be the one to close the door on hundreds of my fellow human beings; however, if I lived in a society that was bombarding my mind relentlessly with messages that I have to kill a certain person and those around me were doing the same thing, then it becomes difficult to remain unaffected. When hatred becomes normalised, it is not easy to prevent it.

In light of this, I realise that now is the time to take a stand against racism, prejudice, xenophobia and any other form of intolerance. As the currents of hatred grow within our very own society, other currents promoting tolerance and acceptance must rise to counterbalance this trend that is so damaging. Therefore, even during the current turmoil of our country, it is necessary to ensure that fissures always remain a minor part in society. We cannot change an entire culture overnight, but we can begin to influence the culture that we see around us.