Kraków was grey. Our plane slipped into and dipped below the puffed cover of cloud that hung above the city. Below, a less-opaque but equivalently grey fog veiled the runway, the airport and the city. Our visibility was limited, by the mist and acute apprehension for what we had come to see. The thirty or so of us rattled about in cheap seats, silently, each recalling the finer points of the two weeks preparation we had received, and contemplating how we might respond to what lay ahead.
The year was either 2011, 2012 or 2013 – an otherwise forgettable winter of that amorphous period when, prior to the collapse of ordinary politics, a semblance of stability persisted in the world and we in the West felt some sort of allegiance to what could broadly be called a moral compass. It is perhaps the contemporary state of things which, time and time again, thrusts Auschwitz to the front of my mind.
We were selected, two (and painfully too few) per participating school, on the premise of hastily-scribbled personal statements and academic records which were said to exhibit some degree of sensitivity to the relevant issues. Coordinated by the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Lessons from Auschwitz project continues to field expeditions to former Nazi death camps, following prolonged discussion and the testament of a Holocaust survivor – despite lapses of memory and a proclivity for Prosopagnosia, the name and face of Leslie Kleinman persist perceptibly.
Fog fused with fag smoke at the arrival’s terminal of John Paul II airport. It and/or the thaw had greyed the old snow-sludge that amassed in sad banks at the roadside. The fall at Auschwitz was purer, almost untouched, and whiter, unblemished by the crisp clear air of the southern Polish countryside. Amongst it, cubic, brick-brown camp buildings rose offensively, protruding sparsely like rock formations breaking the blue of a placid sea.
Our assembly moved mechanistically through the once-industrial complex, sandwiched between a lingering group to our front and an impatient party bringing up the rear. The pace, the tour and the snow presented an environment ill-suited to reflection. We bustled through gas chambers and filed past the famous long glass pane behind which rises a mountain of tattered leather shoes.
As the sun fell a Rabbi preached Yiddish while we laid tealight candles along the two tracks of railway that extend out ahead of the mouth of the Auschwitz gatehouse. Before long, our coach slid back out of the compound and we watched the glimmer of our candles, resembling the runway lamps which had guided us into Kraków that morning, dimmed before vanishing completely.
A week or so later and our school’s two-strong delegation imparted its own ‘lessons from Auschwitz’ to a typically apathetic Monday morning assembly, an event that would bring our participation in the program to a close. I had been eternally relieved that our presentation was delayed by a couple of days, due an aversion to public speaking and, I now realise, a deep anxiety that we would fail to do justice to what we had seen, considered and attempted to articulate. The time came, eventually. A shaky voice vocalised the words scribbled on a paper held between shaky hands. A PowerPoint steered the class through our trip with black bold type set against an image of the pristine snow of Auschwitz and, in the far distance, its gaping gatehouse. We closed with George Santayana’s familiar image of progress, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This, in brief, was our lesson from Auschwitz.
A digestible takeaway, one befitting our young audience, we, Santayana, and the Holocaust Educational Trust pedestalled the knowledge of history as the anchor of humanity’s avoidance of genocide. It was an uncomplicated mission, to know history, made so by its sheer agreement with what was then the contemporary state of things, with the secure position of Holocaust education on scholastic curricula, and the confinement of antisemitism to the radical fringes of British and American politics. Superficially, it appears that the public have broadly subsumed this lesson. A 2018 US study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found favour for the prospect of Holocaust education for all school students among 93% of the population.
Yet, the same study noted that 41% of adults and 66% of millennials could not identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp. More, 31% of adults and 41% of millennials maintained that fewer than 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. And most troublingly, 11% of adults and 22% of millennials either had not or could not determine whether they had heard of the Holocaust.
The report’s findings correspond to a precipitous rise in antisemitism in the United Kingdom and United States: a December 2018 report from the EU’s agency on Fundamental Rights found British politics to have the worst record for antisemitism in Europe, and that almost a third of the UK Jewish population have considered emigrating in response. In the US, antisemitic incidents rose by 57% in 2017 in comparison to the previous year, a trend underscored by the shooting deaths of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018.
Perhaps, then, there is something to Santayana’s thesis: this apparent failure to preserve the past has surely rendered our failure to insulate against its repetition today. But this, our lesson from Auschwitz, is perilously short-sighted. More disturbing is the proliferation and tolerance of antisemitism and xenophobia – by general publics and their elected representatives, in the context of what remains a strong majority of awareness of the crimes perpetrated against minorities by the Nazi party, the Khmer Rouge, the Hutu and so on.
Indeed, available data indicates that those segments of the population which express greater awareness and knowledge of the Holocaust – exhibited by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, vote for and support in largest numbers anti-immigration and xenophobic politicians and policies. The inverse is true of the demographic of least awareness: the millennials. 2018 Gallup poll data signals an 8-point rise in President Trump’s approval rating in the 50-64 age demographic since December 2017, despite revelations of the administration’s mass detainment and separation of migrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. Amongst the 15-34 age group, just 1/5 remain favourable of the Trump presidency. A similar case can be made of the 2016 Brexit leave vote, a referendum widely regarded as underpinned to a significant degree, as found by a recent report, by xenophobic prejudices, voted for by 60% of 50-64s, and against by 61% for 18-24s.
These inferences are, of course, one-dimensional: support for Trump, Brexit and related policies and politicians are premised upon cost-benefit analyses which extend far beyond concerns of immigration and conceptions of the foreign. But these trends, and the broader inward lurch of much of the West, depreciate the value of Santayana’s linkage of knowledge with prevention. Appreciation for the progression of prejudice into fear and fear into violence does not prescribe our willingness nor capacity to mitigate against it – a truism which speaks more to the emotive basis of xenophobia than our failure to learn from history.
There is a need for a lesson from Auschwitz for the post-2016 world, one which dethrones history as the guard of tolerance and imbues hope that we may counteract the contemporary state of things. It is not enough to know history: each of us knows fear, but are no more able to obstruct its advance. The lesson is not to be found in cheap, distortive Trump-Nazi analogies, either. The root of fear – the visceral, cognitive, instinctual response which build our image of the ‘other’ and, so often, prejudice, cannot be wholly found in the past: it is a product of the present. Our self-led socialisation into homogenous pockets of agreeable opinion by social media, corruption by agenda-propagating news media and receptivity to perpetual scapegoating by the politicians we once assumed to be above demagoguery, have rendered us disengaged from reality.
The new lesson from Auschwitz, then, is engagement. In our willing detachment, we invite others to construct the world and its people on our behalf. We imbue political and corporate actors with the capacity to function as bases of our own prejudices, our fears. But the solution, engagement, does not imply general ignorance: the issues in question are more hotly contested today than perhaps at any point in history. Yet, so many of our most-pressing debates are poisoned by the construction of false realities by demagogic actors: in this respect, the vitriol and violence in which many of these discussions are steeped is symptomatic. The return to real debate, to real reality, must be founded in engagement, a course rendered seemingly unnavigable by the proliferation of tools available to actors to construct potent narratives. The most reliable route to engagement, as such, is simple exposure: to people, states, cultures and the other, to cultivate a purely, as far as is possible, self-constructed reality.
It simply must be the task of genuinely progressive societies to foster engagement by exposure: in this duty many ostensibly tolerant states have been delinquent. Yet, some progress has been made. I can think of no greater lodestar for engagement through exposure and the promotion of self-constructed realities than the EU initiative to provide young Europeans with a free rail pass to the travel the continent on their 18th birthdays. With the explicit aim of fostering inter-cultural exchanges, the EU’s Discover Europe initiative pushes against a strong current of disengagement and fear of the unknown.
I draw my own faith in engagement through exposure from my personal experience with the Holocaust Educational Trust at Auschwitz. The same doctrine has since moved me around the world and, most recently, to the LSE. Engagement, true engagement, is the only antidote to the contemporary state of things, in the knowledge that in disengagement, we build death camps.