My eldest daughter is currently in Berlin on a GCSE History trip. In a few days’ time she will be taking the five hour bus journey to Auschwitz. She is nervous and scared. I am not sure she appreciates what she is about to witness.
Her history books talk about millions of dead caused by The Holocaust. They mention gas chambers, ghettos, executions. Labour camps and starvation. There are some pictures, but not many. But these are words and if you stop to think about their implication, what a gas chamber in that context, in any context, actually means, it will make you feel uncomfortable but I am not sure how much further a class of 16 year olds will develop that thought process. To even begin to appreciate the reality, books are not enough.
She will also visit Schindler’s factory, so the evening before her departure, we started to watch Schindler’s List. She broke down in tears when they cleared the Warsaw Ghetto and randomly started shooting people. It was then that it dawned on me that nobody had actually talked to her about the reality of the concentration camps. I gently asked her: “Do you know what is coming your way next week?” “No, I don’t think I do.” Conflicted between giving her the facts and not wanting to put her off going on the trip I said: “You will see things that you will not understand. You will not understand how one human being can do this to another human being. You will literally not be able to process it. And it it will stay with you forever. But you should go. It’s important.”
It is important because this is your history. Not only because you are half German but also because this is world history. And recent.
It is important because you have a duty to feel uncomfortable. You have a duty to confront things that are unpleasant but that are real. You cannot ignore this. You have a duty to the people who died to confront the atrocities by visiting the site where they took place. You have a duty to be upset, to cry at what you see, at what you can only begin to imagine happened there. You have a duty not to forget and to make sure others don’t forget either. As the survivors die it is up to the next generations to bear witness in this way.
It is vital. For the victims, for you and for your children. Have the courage to be upset and then hopefully you will have courage to prevent it from happening again.