OPINION: We dispel division when we deepen understanding

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OPINION: We dispel division when we deepen understanding

Miriam Cates MP and Peter Gibson MP visited Auschwitz and Birkenau for this year's March of the Living, meeting survivors and hearing personal testimonies.

Miriam Cates MP and Peter Gibson MP with Auschwitz survivor Arek Hersh MBE and his wife Jean at Birkenau (Jewish News)
Miriam Cates MP and Peter Gibson MP with Auschwitz survivor Arek Hersh MBE and his wife Jean at Birkenau (Jewish News)

It is hard to imagine how one can feel uplifted whilst surrounded by the infrastructure of evil at Auschwitz and Birkenau.

The brutal remains of gas chambers and crematoria. Vast piles of shoes, clothes and personal items left behind. The railway lines and platform where thousands of Jews disembarked every day to meet their deaths.

Yet the March of the Living truly is a celebration of life. Joining the UK delegation last week was an immense privilege; meeting Holocaust survivors and hearing their personal testimonies of the horrors made the visit all the more real and emotional.

The industrial scale of the slaughter of innocents cannot fail to overwhelm those who are visiting for the first time, particularly when sharing the experience with British Jews and seeing the Holocaust through their eyes.

Many of them lost members of their families in the Holocaust and the vast majority have connections with Poland – unsurprising given the huge numbers of Jews that lived there before the war.

March of the Living truly is a celebration of life

It was so moving to join Jews from around the world, who share a unique common history and culture, to remember what took place and keep the memories of the survivors alive. Despite the fact that one third of all Jews perished in the Holocaust, the message was that the Jewish nation not only survived, but flourished.

What we have witnessed and learned leaves us with the sense that the Holocaust was unique and should be seen as such. Killing Jewish people was about ethnic cleansing as other genocides have been, but it was also an attempt to erase and desecrate Jewish culture and history. The Holocaust was organised, sustained and industrialised mass murder which required the cooperation and collaboration of thousands of people across a whole continent and beyond. Understanding how and why that cooperation occurred must be the key to preventing history repeating itself.

The Holocaust was also unique because at the time – and for the previous 1,900 years – the Jews had no state of their own and nowhere safe to escape to. To be a nation without a state is a very perilous position.

Miriam Cates MP and Peter Gibson MP standing next to Krakow ghetto wall (Jewish News)

Living on an island, it is difficult for us Brits to appreciate the shifting boundaries of countries, shifting communities of peoples which led to the post-war surviving Jewish diaspora demanding and deserving and rightfully returning to their homeland.

One thing seems clear to us – a society that is brutalised, frightened and accustomed to witnessing acts of evil quickly becomes desensitised to violence and that makes it easier to look the other way. Every individual is responsible for their own actions but we also must acknowledge that those actions take place within a wider moral framework.

Living on an island, it is difficult for us Brits to appreciate the shifting boundaries of countries, shifting communities of peoples which led to the post-war surviving Jewish diaspora

One of the phrases used in remembering the Holocaust is ‘Never Again’ and we all understand how important it is to learn from history. But this phrase has caused some controversy because there have been other genocides since 1945, and we may well be living through another right now on European soil.

To truly achieve ‘Never Again’, societies must build strong moral frameworks that have the ability to recognise evil ideologies in their early stages and cut them off before they take root.

We dispel division when we deepen understanding. We embrace difference when we are educated in an emotional way, and the Jewish message of tolerance, understanding and peace was underpinned by the participation in the March by those of other faiths and of none.

The March of the Living has left a lasting mark on us both to carry forward the torch of remembrance; it is an experience like no other.

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