British PM Gordon Brown
Photo: AP

The lesson I learnt at Auschwitz

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown shares deep impact of visit to Nazi death camp

There are no words for the darkness and desolation of Auschwitz.


I have read so much about the Shoah, watched so many films and documentaries, had the enormous privilege of speaking with survivors and educators. I thought I was ready for my visit, but I now know that I wasn't and couldn't have been, because imagination helps us prepare by linking what we are about to experience to something we have experienced before.


But I have never stood before a mountain of human hair before. Never touched the walls of gas chambers where human hands have gouged the brick in terror and despair. Never seen at their place of execution a mound of the shoes of thousands of children who one by one walked to their painful deaths. Never looked, as I have now, at the suitcase of an infant aged three - an orphan who went to her death with no mother or father to comfort her.


What I saw in Auschwitz was a terrible indictment not only of the absolute evil of the perpetrators, but also of the moral blindness of all those who looked aside. I now have a new understanding of the burden of memory, that distance from the Holocaust in time and geography does not lessen but increase our obligation to remember and to resist.


But I have also learned an even deeper lesson. Even when walking in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the Jewish people were determined to remain a light unto the nations. People in Auschwitz continued to pray, to observe the festivals and to perform mitzvot. People shared what bread they had - endlessly dividing nothing as far as nothing could possibly go.


The story of Auschwitz is one of courage as well as cruelty, of how people can still find the ability to be human, even in inhuman places. I am reminded of the rabbi who was not himself ever in a camp, who was asked why he did so much for Holocaust education when he was not himself a survivor. And he replied that he was a survivor, that we all are, not just all Jews, but all of humanity, because we had found the hope to move past our darkest hour. This is what Elie Weisel meant when he said 'because I remember, I despair. But because I remember, I have a duty to reject despair.'


So we must remember on Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom Hashoah. But most of all we must serve the memory of those who did not survive by teaching our children that they were born endowed with free will. It is that ability to choose that contains within it not only the potential for atrocity but also our capacity to live justly. That is what differentiates humankind from all other creatures and that is what the Nazis tried to destroy. So for me, the true lesson of Auschwitz is a simple and profoundly Jewish one: we honour the dead by celebrating life; and we defeat hate by choosing hope.


Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of Britain


פרסום ראשון: 05.21.09, 17:04
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