Comment: Auschwitz, 70 years after liberation

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Next Tuesday, January 27th, marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in which one and a quarter million souls from across Europe perished; young and old, male and female, Jew and gentile, murdered without compunction by Nazi tyranny.

On Saturday evening, Channel 4 will broadcast an extraordinary documentary Holocaust: Night Will Fall with footage of the camps some of which was directed by no less a figure than Alfred Hitchcock. Now, 70 years later it emerges restored and many will struggle to watch and come to terms with the enormity of all it bears witness.

The Jewish community in East Renfrewshire is of long standing.

In his magnificent biographical trilogy which commenced in 1986 with Growing Up In the Gorbals, Ralph Glasser memorably traced the arrival and integration of Scotland’s Jewish community in and around Glasgow over a century ago.

As the community migrated south to Newton Mearns in the post war years, members of it became my neighbours and friends.

I learned very little from them then about the horrors endured although many had survived or personally lost family as the European genocide unfolded.

And in truth, in those post-war years in Britain, anti-Semitism persisted in ignorance.

It was two landmark television programmes in 1973 which together transformed public understanding and certainly mine; Jeremy Isaacs’ 26 part World at War documentary series narrated by Olivier and the outstanding Ascent of Man presented by Dr Jacob Bronowski.

I can remember Dr Bronowski’s testimony vividly as he stood, ankle deep in water and in his mind and heart water mingled with the ashes of his people, moved intensely and speaking directly to the camera from the Birkenau ruins.

The footage is readily available on You Tube. I watched it again recently and it is still as powerful as it was over 40 years ago. If you have not seen it, then search for it now and perhaps also, the remarkable interview he gave to Michael Parkinson in 1974 shortly before he died.

I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau privately a few years ago. I was reluctant to be part of a tour; it seemed to me to be disrespectful to the friends and neighbours I knew.

But I do understand and support the many educational visits now arranged – so long as they never become ‘day trips’. It’s a desolate place and I visited at the bleakest time of the year. My guide was the grandson of a local Oswiecim family.

He was full of compassion and you would have to be. As a father, to see the photographs of small children skipping with joy and relief after the confines a long train journey but unknowingly skipping, holding hands and smiling along a short path to their execution is as chilling and moving an image as any.

Now millions are to be spent preserving the camp and I feel a certain discomfort at the prospect.

For this is millions more than was ever spent rebuilding the lives of those who survived or who were left bereft.

But for as long as there are those who willingly deny the brutal truth, the evidence of Auschwitz-Birkenau must remain when the evidence of so many other camps across Europe was so comprehensively concealed as the Nazis retreated in the final months of the conflict. I’m just relieved that I did not myself have to decide between preservation and allowing the site to rot to oblivion.

Yet 70 years later, as evidenced horribly in Paris a fortnight ago, anti-Semitism is finding a voice again. It must be confronted, challenged and defeated.

Here in Eastwood, the Jewish community remains significant but undoubtedly smaller than it was in those post war years.

As they commemorate the memories of all those who perished in Hitler’s death camps, let us bear in mind that they remember individuals not numbers; friends, neighbours and relatives and not the nameless. 70 years on, it remains the duty and the privilege of us all to stand with our Jewish friends and neighbours now; to give force, meaning and purpose as we pledge Never Again’.