I’m feeling physically drained but mentally uplifted and energised having just returned today from the 2017 Unite Against Fascism visit to Auschwitz/Krakow. It was an immensely powerful, life-affirming experience that provided a chastening reckoning with the past and a confrontation with racism and fascism in the present. Just a few days before our visit 60,000 ultra nationalist Poles, with neo-Nazi groups and their special visitors from abroad in the forefront, had marched and rallied in Warsaw.
We were based in Kraków, where, before the Holocaust, 26% of the city’s population were Jews, and where synagogues and other buildings in the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz remain intact and a community is gradually and successfully renewing itself (the same is happening in more than a dozen other Polish cities).
We were a cross-generational, multicultural group of 48 anti-racists and trade unionists, from those in their teens to those in their mid-70s; from Caribbean, African, Asian, Scottish, Brazilian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian, and other backgrounds. Among the Jewish participants were children, grandchildren and relatives of both Holocaust victims and survivors.
The richness of the casual, friendly conversations across these backgrounds and affiliations, and in responses to the organised educational programme of talks, discussions and walks, is impossible to convey. Just to say that many hugs, tears but also moments of laughter were shared every day of the trip.
On the third day, we visited Auschwitz 1 camp – whose solid brick buildings have been turned into an excellent but horrifying museum – and then the much bigger expanse that was Birkenau, where gruesome ‘selections’ were made every time trainloads of deportees arrived. Most were selected for imminent death in the gas chambers located within this complex, while a minority were selected for work within the camp, and others temporarily housed in the indescribable conditions of the camp barracks before being transported to slave Labour camps in Poland and Germany.
This was my third visit – my second as one of the group ‘leaders’ – and each time I learn much that is new to me. This time I was able to gain new information and insights about the lives of those selected for slave labour, and reflect on their circumstances. Between the longstanding slavery of Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean which ended in the 19th century, and the story of contemporary slavery currently keeping around 30 million people globally in bondage (despite every country declaring it illegal), there is the slave-labour story principally but not exclusively of Jews during the Nazi period, which remains to be examined and told in more depth – with the potential to be linked more closely to both historical and contemporary examples in our understanding and campaigning today.
At every stage in the trip the past was living in the present as we talked of modern day processes of stereotyping, labeling, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanisation of various communities – and also resistance then and now. We recognised some of the key continuities too, such as with antisemitism. It was refreshing to hear participants from a range of ethnic/cultural backgrounds perceive and condemn the current growth in antisemitic conspiracy and Holocaust denial propaganda and say how dangerous it is. It was even more refreshing to see that those activists calling it out felt no need to qualify their condemnation of antisemitism with statements about the separate issue of Israel/Palestine.
Equally welcome was the recognition of the role of culture in resistance to the Nazis in the 1940s. Many participants remarked how moved they were, in Auschwitz Birkenau, when we stopped by a stone plaque in Yiddish that was part of a monument and members of the Jewish Socialists’ Group sang “Zog nisht keynmol” – the Yiddish hymn of the partisan resistance fighters – whose first and last verse ends with the defiant words of struggle: “Mir zaynen do” – “We are here”.