I Don’t Want to Write About Auschwitz

I don’t want to write about Auschwitz. It is difficult to grapple with the atrocities that the Nazis committed there and in so many other places in eastern Europe. When I walked through the famous gates reading “arbeit macht frei,” I was sobered but disassociated from the place, as one is in places where unfathomable trauma has occurred. I continued on in this state as our tour progressed, past fences, photos, and then a room filled with human hair.

The objects collected at Auschwitz when the Soviets liberated it are only a small fraction of what the Nazis took, which makes seeing them all the more horrifying. The Germans made cloth out of human hair from women that they killed in Auschwitz. But it wasn’t this hair that snapped me out of my trance, but a stack of tallits, Jewish prayer shawls. Somehow, that made everything real.

I grew up Jewish. I have left wing political beliefs. I am only here because my great-grandfather immigrated from Poland to the United States. Walking through Auschwitz, seeing the faces of people that look exactly like those I grew up with, and knowing that had I been in Poland at the time I would have certainly been in that camp wearing a red triangle with a yellow one on top of it (meaning political prisoner and Jew) made Auschwitz personal.

The last stop on our tour, in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, was through a prisoner barrack preserved the way it was in 1944. It was in this barrack that those condemned to death would spend their last few nights. Already given starvation diets, prisoners at Auschwitz condemned to the gas chambers were not given any food or water. And the Nazis would not take these prisoners to the gas chambers until the barracks were filled with 1,000 people. Tired, starving, parched people stayed in these barracks awaiting their deaths. Walking through it, I felt like I was disturbing something sacred. I felt that my very presence somehow trivialized the suffering that had occurred in this room.

I don’t want to write about Auschwitz, but we all have to. I am privileged enough to have had the opportunity to study and stand in the places where genocide occurred. It is my responsibility to educate others about what I saw and felt. What gives me the most anguish, however, is that I feel that the world has not yet learned from these crimes. Mass murder and genocide continue on into the 21st century as our own country bombs others and shuts its doors to asylum seekers and refugees. We are all humans with fundamental rights. We all deserve freedom.

The Destructive Capacity of Mankind

The scarred landscape of Pointe du Hoc.

Southeast of Cherbourg, Normandy lies Pointe du Hoc, an area stretching above huge, jagged cliffs. The ocean crashes onto these cliffs up which a U.S. Army Ranger Assault Group scaled on D-Day to protect Utah and Omaha Beaches during the Allied invasion of Normandy. The hundred-foot cliffs are not the most stunning feature of Pointe du Hoc, however.

The land is pockmarked by craters from Allied bombing. Were it not for the concrete bunkers and tangles of rebar, one might think that the craters are a natural part of the terrain. The 40 foot wide and 20 feet deep craters are filled with grass and weeds and wildflowers. Nature always finds a way to make even the remnants of warfare stunning.

One of the great elements of this study program is the opportunity to make real the places where historical events happened. Here, on these clifftops, American soldiers fought and held key positions to protect their comrades landing at Omaha and Utah Beaches later that day. As I walked past craters and stood in German artillery bunkers, the invasion of Normandy became real to me. Unlike Omaha Beach, where little but monuments remind the visitor of the thousands who died there, the craters of Pointe du Hoc tell a story all on their own—one I could never glean from books alone.

So many lives, so many resources were spent in the great battle against fascism. Standing among the craters I looked out at the sea. The waves broke against the brown and gray cliffs. A breeze swept through the tall grass as I stood amidst the destructive capacity of mankind.

The Workers’ War and the People’s War

Entrance to the first exhibit in the People's History Museum.

On Saturday, I experienced the thrill of almost missing my morning train from London to Manchester, UK. My destination was the People’s History Museum, a museum presenting the history of working people and democracy in the United Kingdom. I was drawn to the museum during our group’s visit to the Churchill War Rooms, which present the “great man” theory of history. While they were interesting and informative, I found Churchill’s continued, blatant imperialism disturbing. So I began looking for a museum on topics for which I care deeply: labor, workers, and democracy. Having spent a significant amount of time studying the history of working people and workers’ movements in the United States, I was looking for something just like the People’s History Museum.

The People's History Museum from outside.

The People’s History Museum from outside.

Walking up the stairs leading to the museum’s entry exhibit, I grabbed a punch card and “clocked-in” to the museum using a real 19th century punch-card machine as a factory whistle screamed in the background. I walked through the glass doors to an opening room filled with the exhilarating (and all too often, bloody and depressing) history of working people in the UK told through artifacts, propaganda, banners, and interactive exhibits. As I journeyed through slavery on to the industrial revolution and then into the late 19th century, I was struck by how similar the plight of the UK’s workers was to those in the United States.

I walked further, squinting to make out Keir Hardie’s hand-written speech notes as he worked toward the creation of the Labour Party. I saw huge, intricately painted trade union banners. I watched as the Great War initially brightened and then dimmed the dreams of workers. I saw the Great Depression create a groundswell of support for greater social welfare and a more caring government. I saw the rise of the Communist Party and the British Union of Fascists as the world inched ever closer to war. Then, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Britain declared war, and World War II began.

The British call World War II “The People’s War.” And indeed, all suffered in the fight against fascism. However, the People’s History Museum does not dwell long on the war but rather on what came after. The British suffered immensely during the war—facing continuous bombing, rationing, and loss of life. But as the museum showed, in the decades leading up to the war, the problems plaguing the UK were more deep-rooted. In 1942, the wartime coalition government published the Beveridge Report, a document outlining a future welfare state in Britain. In 1945, Winston Churchill was unceremoniously thrown from government by a landslide Labour victory, bringing to power Clement Attlee, who would implement this welfare state.

A World War II era helmet sits atop a table. The radio next to it plays a BBC broadcast declaring Labour's landslide victory in 1945.

A World War II era helmet sits atop a table. The radio next to it plays a BBC broadcast declaring Labour’s landslide victory in 1945.

Now Win the Peace Poster

John Armstrong’s iconic poster design for the 1945 election campaign. He also designed Labour’s manifesto, Let Us Face the Future.

The Labour Government of 1945 made sweeping reforms to British society. This government is best known for its crowning achievement: the National Health Service. This was one of its many great reforms. But the Labour Government of ‘45 also set in motion a strategy for building houses. In a country as heavily bombed as the UK, this was desperately needed. The Labour government’s reforms were so popular, the Conservatives began campaigning on building more houses faster.

"Labour for Homes" Campaign Poster

A campaign poster urging voters who care about housing to vote Labour.

National Health Service Literature

Literature on the newly created National Health Service, which continues to provide world-class healthcare free at the point of service to everyone in the United Kingdom.

As I left the exhibit halls of the museum, I imagined the creation and implementation of the Government of ‘45’s sweeping reforms. Today, many cannot even fathom creating a single payer system in the United States. It seems that only seeing the experience of wartime—seeing what a nation can do when it wants to—can make some actually envision reform. When I think about the people’s war, I think about not only World War II, but the broader struggle of workers for freedom. Fascism arose in opposition to workers organizing for their rights. If we are truly to see World War II as a people’s war, we must not leave out the broader struggle of workers for freedom and democracy.