We placed chairs in a circle and waited to see who would come. Half an hour earlier our group of 60 anti-racists and trade unionists had returned from a day visiting Auschwitz and the remnants of the vast expanse of crumbling barracks, cut through by a railway line, that had been the death camp of Birkenau.
This was my third consecutive year on the organising team of Unite Against Fascism (UAF) for this visit. We usually encourage people to share their reflections on our return to the hotel, but that is voluntary. Some prefer to be alone immediately afterwards. Others just want to lie down in their rooms, and let the experience wash over them. This year the circle was full, and we had to add more chairs.
I wrote some prompts on a sheet: What surprised you? What made this different from reading books about the Holocaust? What emotions did you feel? What will you take back into your normal life…?
The participants began to unpick and analyse the shattering experience they had just been through. Two main emotions predominated: deep sadness but also rage and anger that the world could let such a thing happen. That people in power had failed to heed credible reports of what was unfolding, or intervene by bombing railway lines to the camps or the gas chambers, even though they had aerial photographs of them.
Our group included people with strong personal ties to this history. One participant’s mother and grandmother arrived together in 1944 in a crammed cattle truck. As they disembarked, her mother, Esther, just 16, was advised by another transportee to lie about her age. She said she was 18 and was put in a line for slave labourers. Esther’s mother could not hide her age, and probably looked even older than her 44 years, having endured starvation in the Lodz Ghetto. She was placed in the line for immediate extermination.
Esther survived, just. She was transported to a slave labour camp in Germany. As the war was ending, the Nazis force-marched the remaining slaves to the notorious Bergen-Belsen camp. There, Esther contracted typhus and shared a bunk with three other young women in a similar condition. She slept right through the day of liberation and then awoke next to three corpses.
The traumatised father of another group member was in a British army unit that helped liberate Belsen. The only Jewish member of his unit, he witnessed the piled up corpses and was tasked with guarding the captured SS men who remained at the camp.
The connections were not only with the victims. Another group member of had grown up very close to her Austrian relatives who were unrepentant Nazis.
The nearest major city to Auschwitz is Krakow – the base for our visit. Only a small proportion of Krakow’s pre-war Jewish population of 68,000 (26% of Krakow’s residents) were sent to Auschwitz. Most were deported to Belzec, 190 miles away. The Nazis tried to to hide the reality of extermination from the local population, but they did not hide their brutal policies of separation, discrimination, and ghettoisation of the Jewish residents of various cities under occupation. Some Catholic Poles benefited materially from the Nazis’ antisemitic policies in the short term, though they too would ultimately suffer huge losses. The walls of one block in Auschwitz 1 camp – converted into a museum – are lined with photos of mainly non-Jewish Polish political prisoners who perished there.
In several cities Jews had formed an even larger proportion of the population than Krakow, such as the textile town, Lodz, and the capital, Warsaw. In both, Jews comprised a third of the pre-war population. Warsaw had been a cosmopolitan, multicultural city, and Yiddish was one of eight main languages you could hear on the streets. Not so today. Poland’s menacing far right groups try to induce paranoia about migrants, refugees and “Muslim invaders”, among the white, mainly Catholic, Poles who make up 96% of the national population.
Auschwitz attracts thousands of visitors every day, both educational groups and tourist day-trippers. In our reflections we discussed the merits of short visits. Some questioned the motives of day-trippers –horror as entertainment – or thought their experience could only be superficial, but others felt that even such superficial exposure would have a significant impact on them.
What makes UAF’s trip outstanding, though, is the painstaking attempt to provide crucial context in the 36 hours before we visit Auschwitz, and follow-up sessions to deepen reflection on the experience and focus on Europe’s growing far right today, not least in Poland.
I gave the opening talk – on Jewish life, death and resistance in Poland – tracing moments in the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland, but focusing most on antisemitic policies and the growth of far right movements in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the resistance both before and during the Nazi occupation. I highlighted the courageous role of Bundists (Jewish Socialist) resisters and described the incredible bravery of the few hundred fighters aged 13-40 who led the three-week Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
The next day, Mary Brodbin led the group on a walk around the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, where synagogues hundreds of years old survive intact. The Nazis did not bomb Krakow because they planned to turn it into a German city. Mary took us over the river to the walled ghetto where the Nazis forced Krakow’ Jews to resettle. Fragments of the ghetto wall – shaped by the Nazis to mimic Jewish gravestones – survive to this day. We saw the poignant artistic monument created at the Umschlagplatz (where Jews were assembled for deportation) of 70 large wooden chairs across this square, each one symbolising 1,000 pre-war Krakow Jews, who died in death camps, in the Krakow ghetto, or at the nearby slave labour camp. The walk ended at a museum on the site of Oskar Schindler’s factory, telling the detailed story of how the Nazis subjugated and separated Krakow’s population and ghettoised the Jews before deporting them for extermination. That evening, a further talk by Donny Gluckstein, dissected the economics and politics of 1930s Europe, to analyse how the Holocaust could have been possible.
The most harrowing material evidence of mass murder is displayed at Auschwitz 1, but it is in the bleakness of Birkenau that the sheer scale of the industrial slaughter hits home. Beyond the railway line is a monument with the same inscription on stones in more than 20 languages, representing the nations from which Jews were transferred. We gathered by the stone inscribed in Yiddish, the language of most deportees, and collectively sang the Hymn of the Partisans written by Hirsh Glik who was murdered aged 22 years old. It ends with the words, “Mir zaynen do!” – We are here!
Our post-Auschwitz reflection session was followed the next morning by Lorna Brunstein, telling her mother’s life story. Esther Brunstein survived Auschwitz and Belsen but died in 2017. Lorna showed film clips of her mother re-living her traumas to educate young people about her experiences, through Anti-Nazi League events, school visits and TV interviews. Our final session in the early evening brought the past into the present. UAF’s Co-Convener, Weyman Bennett, was joined by Robert Ferguson, whose Jewish Hungarian mother survived the war but lost several relatives in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis assisted by Hungarian authorities. Together they illustrated the continuities in the way antisemitic ideology is weaponised, and the newer forces organising particularly around Islamophobia.
During that day news was filtering through from Warsaw about the planned nationalist march to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, sponsored by the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) Party, a populist right wing party that has itself inflamed Islamophobic, antisemitic, anti-Roma and anti-refugee sentiments while also opposing gay rights and women’s rights.
In recent years, Independence Day marches have attracted a growing far right presence. Many municipalities are controlled though, by Civic Platform, a liberal-conservative opposition formation. Warsaw’s Mayor sought to ban far-right bodies and neo-Nazi-banners. This was overturned by the High Court. The PiS – the principal partner of Britain’s Conservative Party in its European Parliament group – then negotiated with the far-right’s representatives over their presence on the march. Government officials led the march and were separated by ranks of military police from the far-right groups including the National Radical Camp – who have revived the name of a virulently antisemitic organisation of the late 1930s – and All-Polish Youth, who combine ultra-nationalism especially with homophobia.
Contingents from the Italian Forza Nueva marched alongside them, as did Generation Identity activists from Britain, and a group wearing hi-vis jackets sporting the slogan “Free Tommy”. Young Polish soldiers were pictured marching close to the Polish Far Right contingents, as more than 200,000 people took to the streets. But the spirit of anti-fascist resistance was also present in Warsaw as progressives held an alternative march and anti-fascist rave. This march was led by two banners in Yiddish and Polish held side by side, translating to “For your and our freedom”. This slogan was first used in a Polish rising against the Tsarist Empire in 1831, then revived in the Spanish Civil War by the Botwin Company of the Dombrowski Battalion, and later by Bundists in the Warsaw Ghetto resistance.
We came back from our visit determined to share the knowledge we had gained, and play a greater role in actively opposing racists and fascists, starting with the national unity march against racism and fascism in London today. Our discussions affirmed that we need to operate on an international level and also broaden the ways in which we challenge the far-right, recognising they don’t rely purely on street activity but are recruiting many adherents through online platforms. During the visit we formed a WhatsApp group to share reflections. On the day we departed, one participant who came with her son, messaged: “Thank you so much for an unforgettable experience… so well organised. Hope that Saturday is so big that we won’t bump into any of you.”
This article was also published in the Morning Star 17th November