Preserving Auschwitz-Birkenau

Politicians on all sides of Britain’s Parliament have rightly welcomed the UK government’s announcement that it will provide £2.1 million to the foundation that oversees the death camp’s upkeep.

Last month, the UK government announced financial support for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, established to secure international backing for the maintenance of Auschwitz-Birkenau, site of the Nazi concentration and death camp.
Coming just weeks after the solemn remembrance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, this is a positive development which underlines Britain’s ongoing commitment to addressing the Holocaust’s legacy.
It was while visiting the camp in 2009 that then-prime minister Gordon Brown first declared that the UK would contribute to the fund, stating that: “As we remember the worst of our past, we must each commit ourselves to serve the best of our future.”
Part of that commitment was to ensure that we do not allow Auschwitz-Birkenau to fall into disrepair. In the uncertainty that followed last year’s change of government in the UK, many of us felt anxious that our pledge to support the fund might be quietly dropped.
So concerned was I that I raised the issue in Parliament with the Foreign Secretary. I was pleased to be reassured that the government planned to contribute to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation – and so it was last month that Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary and Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the UK will provide £2.1 million for the site’s upkeep. Though there is much we disagree on, politicians on all sides of Britain’s Parliament have rightly welcomed the announcement.
I WAS reminded of the importance of the Foundation’s cause when, earlier this year, I joined young people from my constituency on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project – an educational program which has received financial support from the UK government since 2006, and which gives two post-16 students from every school and college in the country the opportunity to see Auschwitz.
It was not my first visit to the camps. Yet somehow, being at the site with young people brought home the urgency of ensuring that future generations are never left ignorant of what took place there.
To see the students I accompanied taking in human stories of loss was incredibly powerful. Holocaust Educational Trust educators enable students to appreciate the impact the Holocaust had on the lives of individuals. Crucially, the students hear first-hand from a Holocaust survivor before they leave the UK, and begin to learn what it means to have families broken up and dreams and aspirations shattered.
The need to preserve Auschwitz-Birkenau is clear.
Most important is the almost incomprehensible truth that over 1.1 million people, overwhelmingly Jewish, were murdered there. Although those who died were not afforded the dignity of marked graves, their place of death should not be allowed to crumble through neglect. Yet growing visitor numbers combined with the temporary nature of many of the buildings presents a huge challenge.
As well as a commemoration, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a monument to the evil human beings can commit. In a world where the poisons of anti-Semitism and prejudice persist, what starker reminder could there be of the dangers of complacency? Safeguarding the future of Auschwitz-Birkenau as a place of remembrance and education is just one strand of Britain’s efforts to confront post- Holocaust issues. Despite mainland Britain having never suffered Nazi occupation, today we feel keenly that the Holocaust is a momentous and complex chapter in our own history, which deserves to be addressed culturally, educationally and politically.
This was not always the case.
Twenty-five years ago, understanding of the Holocaust in the UK was patchy.
Commemoration was limited to the Jewish community, and teaching in schools was sporadic. What a different story today! The Holocaust is a compulsory part of our national curriculum, and is taught in schools across the country. As I have seen, thanks to programs like the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, teaching doesn’t end in the classroom.
War Crimes legislation passed in 1991 means Nazi war criminals living in the UK can be prosecuted domestically, and since 2001 we have observed a national Holocaust Memorial Day each year on the date of Auschwitz’s liberation.
So I hope this move will not be seen in isolation, but as another step in my country’s ongoing relationship with the Holocaust.
I was struck to learn that inmates at Auschwitz secretly buried evidence of the despicable crimes they were witnessing. If even in their despair they had the strength to ensure that the truth was preserved for future generations, it behooves those of us who live freely today do all we can to honor their legacy.
The writer is Labour Member of Parliament for Leeds West.