“Nothing prepares you for visiting Auschwitz,” Unite young member Aiden Papworth told UniteLive.
Part of a Unite delegation which travelled to see the largest Nazi concentration camp in Poland, Aiden, 26, said that as a history buff, he’d always wanted to visit Auschwitz.
When the chance presented itself through an educational trip sponsored by Unite and organised by Unite Against Fascism, Aiden, who works as an engine-fitter at Rolls Royce in Derby, seized the opportunity.
But the reality of beholding the deadliest Nazi camp, where more than 1m Jewish people were gassed to death and many more died of disease and starvation, was an altogether different experience than what he’d imagined.
“I’d seen clips on the telly and pictures but it’s so different seeing it in person,” he said. “The room displaying piles and piles of human hair taken from victims before being sent to the gas chambers was especially unsettling. When you learn that they sold this hair to be made into things like army socks you get a sense of how inhuman the Nazis were – Jewish people were treated worse than vermin.”
Unite branch chair Ben Davis, 28, who was also part of the Unite delegation, agreed.
“It’s really hard to put into words what visiting Auschwitz is like,” he said. “The atmosphere at Birkenau is really chilling. There’s something in the air – it’s just totally silent.
“You find yourself standing next to a train track and it just hits you that millions of people were herded on these very same train tracks straight to the gas chambers. Auschwitz was a factory where people were killed so heartlessly and uncaringly. To their murderers, it was if they were just processing animals. It’s devastating to see human beings reduced to that.”
Aiden was also struck by how coldly mechanistic the concentration camp complex was.
“It may sound strange to say this, but especially when you see Birkenau, where people were taken to the gas chambers, you see how well made it is – it’s really the perfect factory. But then it hits you – this wasn’t for making sausages or anything like that, this was to murder people.”
‘But they never made it out’
For Unite London and Eastern young members branch chair Ellen Morrison, 27, what left the biggest impression on her was an exhibition room at Auschwitz displaying victims’ crockery.
“It was apparent that those sent to the concentration camps believed they would be continuing their lives,” she explained. “But they never made it out.”
Exhibition rooms at Auschwitz also display other belongings like shoes and suitcases, which for Ellen really brought home the full weight of the horrors that had happened during the Holocaust.
“These were snapshots from people’s actual lives. So often when we speak of the Holocaust we talk about the sheer numbers of people who were murdered and in the process we forget that we aren’t just talking about numbers. Each and every person who was killed in the Holocaust had family and friends, had hopes and dreams; they were individuals just like the rest of us.”
Ellen, who is a disabled activist, added that the history of the Holocaust is an important part of history for disabled people – as they were among the first to be murdered by the Nazi regime. Before the mass killings in concentration camps, tens of thousands of disabled people were killed as part of the Nazis so-called T4 euthanasia programme
“It’s a part of history that not a lot of people are aware of and should be,” she said.
“The day before we visited Auschwitz we went to see the Warsaw Ghetto where people were detained before being transported to concentration camps. There we saw two buildings – one was a sort of labour exchange where people went to register for work, and the other one, a pink building, was for those who were infirm, disabled or otherwise unfit for work. For the Nazis, you were of no value if you couldn’t work.”
“It dawned on me that if I were alive then, I would be among those required to report to the pink building. It was a very emotional moment that I won’t soon forget.”
Trip ‘strengthened my resolve’
After returning from the Unite Against Fascism trip, Ellen, Ben and Aiden all said that it had a major impact on how they view the present.
“For me, it really reinforced my desire to continue pursuing the anti-racism activism I’ve been involved with,” Ben noted. “On the trip, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor spoke to us, which really hit home to me that this wasn’t something that happened ages ago – it was an atrocity that is within living memory.
“It’s quite scary when you realise that a genocide on the scale of the Holocaust could easily happen again. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s those casually racist and xenophobic conversations in pubs and in workplaces can easily spiral and lead to the ghettoes and gas chambers.
“As trade unionists, we have a duty to stand up for all people, especially for those who are underrepresented and marginalised,” he added. “If not us, then who?”
“I was emotionally drained after the trip, but it only strengthened my resolve to continue fighting back against the hatred and division now gaining traction in our communities,” she said. “Now that we have a prime minister who on record makes racist comments, not just in the distant past but very recently – and makes absolutely no apologies for them – we must redouble our efforts.”
Ellen said she believed trade unions were especially well placed to tackle growing racist and far-right ideologies.
“As trade unionists, we’re on the ground in our workplaces and communities and so can understand where these ideologies come from and in the process challenge them where they first take root,” she said.
For Aiden, the trip to Auschwitz really opened his eyes to the similarities between 1930s Germany and now.
“As a young person, I see a lot of casual racism on social media and after the trip, it really made me realise that this is how it all starts,” he said, pointing to far-right activists like Tommy Robinson and his large online following.
“That’s why I think it’s especially important that young people learn about the history of the Holocaust and visit Auschwitz if they can — I’m very grateful that Unite gave me that opportunity. As young people we’re on the front lines of online propaganda and fake news, so we’re the most susceptible to being radicalised but at the same time we’re also best positioned to challenge those online far-right narratives.”
Unite Community national co-ordinator Liane Groves explained why the trip to Auschwitz, organised as part of Unite’s Unity Over Division campaign was so vital.
“Our members who went on the trip, most of whom were young people, were able to see first hand the horrors of the Holocaust. At a time when the far-right is on the rise across Europe and indeed across the globe, it is absolutely vital that our members take the lessons they learned during the trip to their workplaces and communities,” she said.
“As part of our broader Unity Over Division campaign, we hope to make the trip to Auschwitz an annual one. As we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we must remember that there are now very few Holocaust survivors still with us to tell their stories. It is up to us and future generations to take up the mantle and learn this history. We honour the victims by ensuring that we never forget.”
Unite is supporting the Auschwitz Memorial in their goal to reach 1m Twitter followers on Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday (January 27). As of writing, they’ve reached 970k followers. You can follow them @Auschwitzmuseum.