Visiting Auschwitz


JVL Introduction

Jonathan Rosenhead provides a personal account of his visit to Auschwitz with Unite Against Fascism in November 2018

Posted 31 December 2018, updated 1st January 2019

On November 9th in Krakow 12 JVL members were among a group of 60, educating ourselves and being educated on the Warsaw ghetto uprising and more besides. The next day we would visit Auschwitz. The day after that, November 11th was the 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence; some 200,000 people marched in an event that the Government tried to ban because it was originated by Poland’s extreme right; and then they decided to join it.

Anniversaries. November 9th is a day full of resonances. On that day in 1918 in Berlin Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a socialist republic. Twenty years later it was the date of Kristallnacht. The Berlin wall fell on November 9th , 1989.

Of course events don’t choose their dates. But these coincidences focussed our minds as we prepared for our visit to the slave labour and death camps at Auschwitz. The visit, organised by Unite Against Fascism, is an annual event. But this was the first time that it has included an organised Jewish contingent*.

It has taken me some time to organise what I can say about it, what I need to say.

On November 10th we saw the camp, what remains. What remains of Auschwitz’s outlandish yet familiar architecture of mechanised death is abstract, chilling. Everyone in the group had lived with the knowledge of it, in principle, throughout their conscious lives. Why then were we there? Maybe to bear witness, and to understand a little better.

Returning to our hotel, group members converged for an impromptu gathering. It wasn’t on the plan, but we felt we needed it. Quietly we began to share experiences of the day, and of the different significances it had held for us. We learnt that the mother and grandmother of one of our group were taken to Auschwitz. Her mother was selected for work, and survived; but her grandmother was sent straight to her death in the gas chambers. Another group member had lost equally close relatives by a different system of mass murder in Budapest. The father of a JVL member had been part of the British army group that liberated Belsen – what he witnessed there had devastated his and indeed the whole family’s life. Another of us had close family who had been perpetrators – members of Hitler Youth, the Nazi Party, the Waffen SS. Many were moved to tears.

On other days we heard informative talks about the Holocaust, and about resistance. We saw the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz; the ghetto into which Krakow’s Jews were concentrated; the square in which they were gathered for transportation; and Oscar Schindler’s factory. But it was that almost sacramental gathering after our visit to the camps that was the moving centre of our trip.

What message does Auschwitz give us, who have been living through months of discordant clamour about an antisemitism of the left, about antisemitism as a critical issue within the Labour Party? That sentence really needed to be ended with an exclamation, not a question, mark.

It would be easy to write a polemic. It is indeed deeply shocking to see and hear so grave a crime, so radical a perversion of human capabilities, exploited for purposes other than of commemoration and commitment. Yet undoubtedly some of those who raise the hue and cry do so out of genuine fear: ‘Never Again’ has great resonance.

We need to recall that antisemitism has a long history. There has often – some might say always – been antisemitism, but its focus and its forms have shifted. Thus Jews, as a group characterised by their religion, were blamed for the plague in the fourteenth century and massacred in thousands. The antisemitism of the 19th century, by contrast, developed in the age of nationalism. It was that strain, racially- rather than religiously-based, which culminated in Auschwitz, Belsen and all those other infamous locations.

It is important to take the threat, indeed the changing threat, of antisemitism seriously. But taking it seriously does not mean believing everyone who says that they detect it. Aesop’s fable about the negative consequences of ‘crying wolf’ is well known for good reason – as those currently engaged in elastic lupine detections should reflect. (The legalistic version of this practice is the misinterpretation of the Macpherson principle, developed in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, as validating all cries of ‘Wolf’.)

We do have particular reasons right now, winter 2018/9, to take the real wolf very seriously indeed. Ten days before we left for Krakow an antisemite gunned down members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The week following our return saw a major trade union-supported demonstration in London against the rising street presence of proto- fascists, and indeed against the growing threat of fascism within the political systems of many European countries as well as the United States.

Jewish Voice for Labour’s consistent position has been to oppose the twin threats – of unfounded claims of left antisemitism which are political rather than anti-racist in origin; and that of right antisemitism which is alive and growing. Up to now we have been most active in countering the first of these. For me the experience of visiting Auschwitz reinforces the conclusion that JVL must play a full and active part in building a social movement that can counter the menace of the real fascism that we are now faced with.




* David Rosenberg has written about this visit in the Morning Star.