Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Conference, Monday 8th July 2013: Part Two

After a quick lunch break, we dispersed into groups once again to begin the afternoon programme...

Workshop Two: Martin Winstone, Holocaust Educational Trust
Winstone's workshop was entitled 'The Holocaust Beyond Auschwitz', a session particularly relevant for the majority of the audience who had taken part in the Trust's 'Lessons from Auschwitz' Project. Auschwitz has certainly become a symbol of the Holocaust mainly due to its sheer size and the fact that it has been so well preserved and can easily be visited by people from all over the world, but it is just one place and one aspect of a complicated, widespread system that the Nazis implemented all over Europe.
We discussed the fact that extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Chełmno existed, but who among us had heard of Maly Trostinets, Sajmište or Janowska? Hardly anyone. Emphasis was also given to the fact that it was not just Zyklon B and gas chambers used to exterminate the victims of the Holocaust.
Winstone presented the example of Bełzec death camp in Poland, one of three camps that were created as part of Operation Reinhard in 1942. No part of the original camp remains; the Nazis demolished all evidence of the camp when it was closed in December 1942. Much of their work was largely undone, however, when local townspeople dug up the area in search of gold and other valuables and exposed the remains of the victims. Winstone highlighted the fact that at least 434,508 people were sent to Bełzec during its time in operation - March - December 1942 - and only two people escaped and survived. Thus, little is known about the camp in comparison to those such as Auschwitz, which were much larger and, therefore, had more survivors and eyewitnesses.
One source also confirmed the idea that at least some Germans knew exactly what was happening to the Jews of Europe. The following is taken from the diary of Wilhelm Cornides, dated 31st August 1942, as he passed Bełzec on a train:

'We travelled for some time through a tall pine forest. When the woman called, "Now it comes!" one could see a high hedge of fir trees. A strong sweetish odour could be made out distinctly. "But they are stinking already," said the woman. "Oh nonsense, it is only the gas," laughed the railway policeman. Meanwhile - we had gone on about 200 metres - the sweetish odour was transformed into a strong smell of something burning. "That is from the crematory," said the policeman...A double track led into the camp. One track branched off from the main line, the other ran over a turntable from the camp to a row of sheds some 250 metres away...One of the sheds was open; one could distinctly see that it was filled to the ceiling with bundles of clothes.'

This source makes it clear that, whilst the Nazis tried to cover their tracks at the end of the war, they were only too happy to keep their crimes visible during a period of intense extermination.
The session then went on to look at 'the Holocaust by bullets', with the example of Ponar used. In this forest, near Vilna (the Polish town of Vilnius at that point), around 70,000 Jews, 8,000 Soviet POWs and thousand of Poles were shot to death. The total figure of killings here exceeds those of the concentration camp Majdanek.
We then turned to look at extermination through labour, prevalent in places such as Auschwitz and other regions within the General-gouvernement. This included arduous tasks such as road-building, without any safety procedures, resulting in many injuries and fatalies. Regular selections were also carried out and, between 3rd - 4th November 1943, 42,000 inmates were killed in an action sadistically named 'Erntefest' (the Harvest Festival).
The session came to a close by looking at 'the Holocaust in plain sight'; round-ups and deportations of Jews, murder committed on the streets of Eastern Europe and ghettoisation of the Jews before ghettos were liquidated.

Ambassadors and delegates then filed back into the main conference room for what was certainly the most emotional part of the day.

Interview with Hannah Lewis, Holocaust survivor
Hannah Lewis was interviewed by ITV News presenter Lucy Manning, who asked her to briefly recount her experiences during the Holocaust.
Hannah was born in Poland in the late 1930s. An only child, she lost both her parents during the Holocaust - including watching an Einsatzgruppen shoot her mother dead when she was just seven years old. She survived a small labour camp, Adampol, near Sobibor death camp, and was there until liberation in 1945. Some of her memories are hazy, she admits, because of her age, but she will never forget what happened to her mother. She described children who lived through the Holocaust as "children without a childhood" and, when asked about the treatment the Nazis and their collaborators dealt the Jews, replied simply, "Inhumanity breeds inhumanity."
A live Twitter feed was screened behind Hannah and Lucy during the interview and a few questions were presented to Hannah after her testimony, such as any similarities she feels she shares with other victims of genocide and why she decided to start talking about her experiences (she only began sharing her story around 10 years ago). It was an incredibly moving, emotional experience listening to Hannah and I am so glad that she feels able to tell her story to young people.

Address by Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty
The delegation then heard from the brilliant Shami Chakrabarti, who made her message to Ambassadors very clear. She stated that international human rights came about as a result of the Holocaust, and that every person is granted basic human rights "just from being alive." Human rights, she stated, are divided into three main categories: dignity, equal treatment and fairness. Chakrabarti stressed that equal treatment is the most important of the three; if equal treatment was given to all, we would have no problems with dignity, fairness or rights!
In terms of what Ambassadors can do, Chakrabarti emphasised the point of "do unto others as you would want done to yourself." She encouraged the delegation to start small, "in the places that will never be seen on a map"; the classroom, at home etc., and to be creative in passing on the message. She ended her speech by encouraging Ambassadors to "live the values" and "be strong in debate".

Panel discussion: Professor David Cesarani, Royal Holloway University; Trudy Gold, The London Jewish Cultural Centre; Shami Chakrabarti and Professor Yehuda Bauer
The main question posed to the panel, chaired by Karen Pollock, was: Why does the Holocaust matter? The following is a summary of their individual responses.
Cesarani: There is the idea that the Holocaust can be linked to 21st century anti-racism campaigns. The Holocaust, however, is not quite so relevant to this and not largely relevant in the 21st century, but there are still lessons to be learned from it. Research on the Nazis has shown that genocide was in the framework of their plans for world domination and war; if there had been no war, the likelihood is there would have been no genocide, and that has been seen in other cases of genocide. So, rather than saying 'never again', we should be saying 'no more wars'.
Gold: More work is needed looking at the psychology of the Holocaust; what makes a perpetrator and what makes a bystander? The Holocaust is also cross-curricular and can be taught in a number of different ways, but the stories of those who lived and died must always be told. The Holocaust also teaches all aspects of human behaviour, but more emphasis is needed on the role of rescuers in the Holocaust.
Chakrabarti: Education on the Holocaust needs to be started young. If we take Harry Potter, for example, there is the idea of 'Mudbloods' and their segregation from 'pure' wizards. It needs to be age-appropriate.
Bauer: You cannot deal with present conflicts without knowing those in the past. We look at history in the context of our own lives but the Holocaust is still present, because of the survivors, and still relevant. 'Never again' is also a silly term; it should be 'ever again' because the likelihood of future genocide is high. We can learn lessons from the war; World War II could have been prevented when the basic rights of Jews were taken away by the Nazis, and genocide comes from lack of human rights.

Address by Rabbi Barry Marcus, Central Synagogue, London
It was only fitting that Rabbi Marcus should conclude the Ambassador Conference. Rabbi Marcus has attended all but one of the Trust's 'Lessons from Auschwitz' Project trips to Auschwitz since the programme began in 1998.
His speech was brief, but he raised some very interesting points. He talked about the Holocaust as a "private grief" for Jews, but acknowledged its relevance to all people "on a deeper level". He also talked about the fact that, when thinking about the Holocaust, many people ask, 'Where was God?' "The question is not, 'Where was God?' The question is 'Where was man?'" was Rabbi Marcus' reply.
Rabbi Marcus voiced his concern about the growing anti-Semitism worldwide and echoed Professor Bauer's sentiment of discussing 'ever again' because of human nature. He finished by stating that there is a real human fear of being forgotten which we must ensure does not happen in the case of those who survived the Holocaust - and those who didn't.

The conference, I am pleased to say, went seamlessly. My gratitude and thanks are extended to all the speakers, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre and, of course, the team at the Holocaust Educational Trust who organised such a fantastic event. Hopefully there will be similarly successful events in the future!
You can watch a report by Jewish News One on the day by clicking this link.