By Professor Julia Buckingham, Vice-Chancellor and President of Brunel University London
11 Dec 2018
This article originally appeared on the Universities UK blog and is reproduced with permission.
Earlier this month Universities UK held its third national conference on tackling violence against women, harassment and hate crime in all its forms. Making progress in this area remains one of our key priorities, so I was privileged recently to participate in the first-ever Lessons from Auschwitz project for universities, a government-funded initiative run by the Holocaust Education Trust and Union of Jewish Students.
On a freezing winter's day, approximately 150 staff and students of UK universities arrived at Auschwitz to participate in the programme.
There were many moments when the horror of what happened there eight decades ago hit home: the scale of the site; the constant reminders of the individual lives affected, including discarded children's shoes, keys to family homes, and a mass of human hair used to stuff mattresses; the starkness and exposure of the location where an estimated 1.3 million people were sent, and where so many endured bitter winter months and intolerably hot summers; the depraved pre-meditation of Birkenau, with its purpose-built railway line terminating within the confines of the camp; photos of men, women and children arriving at the camp, bemused, exhausted and largely unaware of the brutality to come; and the beauty of the nearby village, juxtaposed with the horror of what happened so close by.
In truth, no matter how many documentaries you watch or books you read on the Holocaust, nothing prepares you for visiting a place like Auschwitz. Approximately 1.1 million people lost their lives there during the Holocaust. Around 90% of those sent to the camp were Jews, but many others were targeted by the Nazi regime, including Polish citizens, Romani, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses and countless gay people.
The Lessons from Auschwitz programme was structured to enable participants to share their thoughts, as well as reflect and question. In small mixed groups of senior university staff and student sabbatical officers, we learned about the Holocaust and pre-war Jewish life, and the calculated systematic way in which Jewish families were targeted and degraded.
Hearing the different experiences and perspectives of individual group members emphasised to me how critical partnership working is to tackling hate crime in all its forms, and I was also struck by powerful personal testimony from Susan Pollack MBE, who as a teenager was transported with her family to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. It is a remarkable testament to her that she built such a successful life afterwards. Her story will stay with me always.
Completing the programme has intensified my own commitment to tackling hate crime, and as a result, at Brunel we are working on new initiatives with our Student Experience Committee to give this renewed focus.
My commitment to free speech has also strengthened. The persecution of the Holocaust was so calculated and terrifying in the way it took hold, it is frightening to think how such inhumanity could prosper. And yet it did. Our universities must remain spaces where debate flourishes, and where uncomfortable views are explored and countered, and not left to fester unchecked. In these toxic and febrile times, this has never seemed more important.
Tackling hate crime, including anti-Semitism, must remain a priority for all university leaders. We have made good progress in recent years with the UUK Taskforce and its subsequent Changing the culture report, while a recent roundtable on race-based hate crime, efforts to tackle cyber-bullying, and a new survey to assess the sector’s recent activity will help to keep the momentum up.
These projects are valuable, but it’s clear that more work is needed. A good starting point for my fellow university leaders and student representatives would be to participate in future iterations of this powerful programme.
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