I’m not Jewish – which is why I had to join the March of the Living

Lord Shinkwin | The Jewish Chronicle

“I don’t understand why you went, to be honest”.

It was a perfectly reasonable response from a concerned family member. I had not long returned from Poland with March of the Living. In the space of five intensive days spent with that remarkable charity, I had learnt more about the Holocaust than most people would ever choose to know.

What I witnessed left me traumatised by the scale of the tragedy and uplifted by the evident triumph of the human spirit despite it.
So why did I put myself through it? What compelled me to choose to learn more about such an abomination?

After all, unlike many of those who accompanied me on the trip, I am not Jewish. I did not lose any of my family to the Holocaust. So what has it got to do with me?

In the Commons debate on antisemitism, Luciana Berger told how more than 100 members of her family, aged four to 83, were killed in the gas chambers of Treblinka, Sobibor, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz — and that was just on her mother’s side. She concluded: “The time for action is now.”

I am conscious of the question which her call for action poses to me and to each of us: what action can any of us take — especially those of us who are not Jewish — which will actually make a difference?

And this is the nub, because immediately I am distinguishing myself. I am different from “them”. I am not Jewish. What is happening now with the return of “mainstream” antisemitism may be terrible — but it is happening to them, not me. It is happening to other people.

For, quite apart from the Holocaust’s incomprehensible magnitude and unfathomable depravity, that instinct to separate is perhaps one of the most pervasive legacies of the Nazis’ virulent antisemitism and, indeed, of the Holocaust itself. It happened to the Jews, not to me, not to my family, not even to friends of my family.

Tragic, yes. Relevant, no. Wrong!

I believe the Jewish people’s almost immeasurable loss — when one looks beyond the statistics — was a shared loss: it was humanity’s loss, too. Given its colossal scale, how could it not be?

That is the first lesson I learnt on March of the Living — that the tragedy that befell the victims of the Holocaust directly befell us all indirectly, too. It is relevant to all of us because it is quite simply the greatest single crime ever to have been perpetrated by  — and the greatest single tragedy ever to have befallen — humanity.

It was only when I went on March of the Living that I fully appreciated the enduring human cost of almost three-and-a-half million of Poland’s citizens being lost to the Holocaust and, with them, a vibrant Jewish culture and the significant contribution that its Jewish community made to so many aspects of its national life.

Unsurprisingly, the attempted annihilation of Europe’s Jewish population left a gaping wound which affected — and still affects — Europe as a whole.

And yet, incredibly, I learnt that the Nazis planned for it to be worse, to the tune of a further five million deaths. 330,000 of them were to come from what the Nazis described as England (presumably the UK, as its component parts were not listed separately).

As the film, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reminds us, it did actually happen on British territory; people were removed from the Channel Islands and sent to their deaths for being Jewish.

The second lesson I learnt on March of the Living is that personalising this is crucial to appreciating both the loss and its relevance to all of us.

My own personalisation of that loss and, thus, my decision to accept the invitation to join March of the Living 2018 was due to one man, someone who almost lost his life because he was Jewish and who went on to play a very important part in my life: my doctor.

His story is quite extraordinary. It starts in Nazi-occupied Prague. The teenager’s father, Alfred, had got to Britain first where he found safety for his family by obtaining guarantors for Hanus and his mother, Mary, thereby enabling them to join him here.

Nonetheless, it was still touch and go. They only just made it on to the very last train out of Prague before the Nazis closed the borders.

How different life would have been had they failed to make it, for him — and for me. Not one of his relatives who came to wave them off that day survived the Holocaust.

Hanus Weisl would have simply become another grisly statistic, one of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. Instead, through finding refuge in this country, he became one of the most important people in my life.

Fast forward to 1971. By the time I was born that June, he had already established himself as a well-respected consultant orthopaedic and trauma surgeon; I was to be under his expert care for the next 13 years.

My brittle bones meant that I was barely out of hospital for much of my childhood. One year, I managed to be in traction, recovering from yet more fractures, for both Christmas and my June birthday. Throughout, Hanus’s obsession with perfection, his compassion and his respect for his patients and their families meant that the care I received from him was second to none.
When I was only one year old, he broke with all medical convention and let my mother take me home with my leg still in a splint; he would complete his ward round at our house on his way home.

On one occasion, he had me wheeled back down to theatre for my leg to be reset because he was dissatisfied with the x-rays following surgery performed in his absence the previous day.

As a tearful ten-year old, I did not thank him for his diligence, but I do now.  Thanks to Hanus Weisl, I had the best possible medical start in life. He made my legs straight when my bones kept on snapping and insisted I continue weight-bearing (crucial to maintaining bone density), no matter how often I had to learn all over again how to walk after months in bed.

Most importantly, he taught me, by example, never to lower my expectations because I had a disability.  He was light years ahead of his time. His progressive attitude and radical partnership-based approach are perhaps best summed up in a Christmas card I treasure.

Written shortly after his retirement in 1992, it reads: “I was most touched by your note of thanks for whatever I tried to do. However, I am convinced that whatever the surgeon does, it is the patient who makes it work (or not).”

Hanus Weisl, the teenage refugee from Prague, whose dedication helped transform the life chances of a non-Jewish boy, a boy who would one day sit in the House of Lords and recall on the floor of that house his old orthopaedic surgeon with heartfelt gratitude.

It could have been so different. He and his mother might still have got the necessary visas only to discover that the last train out before the borders were closed had already left.

The Nazis had already shown their bestial true colours by 1939. Yet no one foretold the Holocaust, and no one would have been believed had they done so.

How could any human being possibly have conceived and then participated in the implementation of such a programme?

And confronted with the evidence and the tragic legacy of the Final Solution, as I and 11,000 other participants of March of the Living were in Poland, how could we begin to understand how it could have happened in a country only a few hours away by plane?

These were the questions I took with me on what was in many ways a personal pilgrimage, both to honour the memory of my former doctor and the war-time victims of antisemitism and reflect on the lessons of their suffering.

And these were just some of the questions I came home with. For another crucial lesson I learnt during those five intensive days was that the deeper you delve, the less you understand and the more you realise that the clinical, brutal belief system underpinning the Holocaust should never make sense. In fact, it would be disturbing if it did.

Now I am home, I am haunted by guilt at having returned so easily from camps deliberately designed to be places of no return.
But what next?

On the penultimate night, we were encouraged to make a personal pledge of at least one follow-up action. Top of the list was telling people about what we had witnessed. Processing what I learnt is proving to be the hardest part.

For while a temporary immersion into an alien world of institutionalised, racist sadism, appalling suffering and methodical mass murder is tough, re-entry into our comfortable Western world of respect for human rights and freedom from fear is tougher still.

I found the exposure to such a different, desolate world deeply traumatising. Nothing prepared me for the shocking, tangible realisation of the enormity of the Final Solution.

Auschwitz is not the Holocaust, and the Holocaust is not Auschwitz, but if evil has a physical infrastructure, I saw it there and particularly at Birkenau, where the watchtowers and the many buildings of perhaps the most infamous of concentration and extermination camps stretched as far as the eye could see.

I was horrified to learn that the Nazis had plans to build a sixth crematorium. Even without it, the capacity of the existing crematoria and outdoor cremation pits in the summer of 1944, when 437,000 Hungarians were deported there, was 20,000 a day.

It was a sobering thought that had the Nazis killed all 11,000 of us who converged on Birkenau for a moving ceremony on the closing day of our visit, they would still have been only half-way through their daily quota of death.

I want to keep my pledge to bear witness. Yet I ask myself, how exactly am I meant to tell family and friends about either the unspeakably sad suffering or the indescribably gratuitous sadism?

How can I tell them what it feels like to know that the dust I carried home on my shoes and clothes was the dust of death, that it is everywhere at Auschwitz and Birkenau because that is all that is left when you burn more than 1,000,000 individuals — their ashes?

The answer for me is that I cannot go into the detail because it would reduce those I love to tears, as it did me on a few occasions and still does.

I reproach myself for weeping: what right do I have to cry when no one in my non-Jewish family suffered?

What I learnt was that, while I may not feel I have as much of a right to lament the horrific loss caused by the Holocaust, my position, both as a beneficiary of a Jewish refugee doctor’s dedication and as a member of the Lords, means I most definitely have a duty to confront the poison of antisemitic prejudice which fuelled it.

I may not feel able to share the graphic details of barbarity but I can nevertheless keep my pledge if I bear witness by my actions, by writing this article, by speaking on related issues in the Lords and by supporting a strong and secure Israel.

Each of us owes it to the dwindling number of survivors to ensure no one has to endure what they did.

For me, the first step is to recognise our common humanity, rather than draw on distinctions and to acknowledge that antisemitism, as well as being a poignant reminder of past tragedy, is a racist threat to our inclusive values and our British way of life.

It is perhaps natural for some to ask what there is to be gained by raking over the misery. What is left after all the pain, the fear and the tears?

The only answer I have is that what remains is what makes us unique as human beings — the ability to decide that we cannot allow such intense hatred to consume us ever again.

The bigger question for me though is whether, as a society, we seek revenge in the conventional sense or exact it through making the choices which deliberately defy the perverse, poisonous values of the Nazis. The fact is that, although Nazism may have been defeated militarily 73 years ago, the vile vision of antisemitism that the Nazis propagated needs still to be defeated by all of us every day because the roots go so deep.

For Hitler knew, as we do, that his genocidal Final Solution was perpetrated by human beings who were never born to be cruel, debased or inhuman.

And yet their capacity to do the unspeakable sprang from an inherent human flaw — hatred of the other — which he exploited to its fullest.

However sophisticated we believe modern society to be and however unrepeatable we feel the horrors of the Holocaust are, the choice remains the same. History tells us that passivity in the face of evil does not pay, that unimaginably terrible things can and do happen when bystanders shrug and reassure themselves that those awfully sad things are happening to someone else, to someone different, to the other.

We only need to look at how we have become desensitised to the interminable suffering of the Syrian conflict to know how true that is.

It is so easy to feel powerless, and yet there are small, practical steps which I know non-Jews like me can take — in addition to deciding not to distinguish between them and us — so that we instead stand in solidarity and empathy with members of Britain’s Jewish community and MPs like Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth.

So that when Iran’s regime threatens Israel with destruction, we remember that the Jewish people know more than anyone what destruction, what annihilation, looks like.

So that before rushing to lay all the blame for the situation in Gaza at Israel’s door, we reflect on the brutal reality of its terrorist Hamas regime, which suppresses all dissent, oppresses women and LGBT people, diverts aid to arms, uses children’s flaming kites to destroy Israeli crops and refuses even to recognise Israel’s right to exist. So that when someone at a dinner party peddles another Jewish conspiracy theory, we politely point out that antisemitism is racism.

Perhaps reading this article will prompt some to find out more about March of the Living and the exciting Jewish Community Centre in Krakow.

I know I am privileged to have been able to do both, prompted by the debt I owe to Hanus Weisl. I also realise that not everyone will share the bond that we did, which ironically is actually far more profound than just that between doctor and patient.

By virtue of the Nazi’s poisonous prejudice, we would both have been classified as Untermenschen  and thus both destined for death.

It is highly unlikely that either of us would have survived the Holocaust — he because he was Jewish, I because I am disabled.
Indeed, as a doctor, he must have known that the Nazis first perversely perfected their gassing techniques on disabled children as part of their Aktion T4 programme, which Hitler personally authorised 78 years ago.

Hanus, by complete contrast, had a particular interest in using his medical skills to care for, rather than kill, disabled children.
Despite the, at times, almost suffocating sadness, I have many positive memories of my personal pilgrimage with March of the Living.  A particularly poignant one sticks in my mind.

We had just come from seeing the crematorium at Majdanek concentration and extermination camp. Unlike at Birkenau where the SS had blown up the crematoria in a futile attempt to cover their tracks, the Soviet advance had been so rapid that at Majdanek the crematorium today is as it was 74 years ago.

The realisation that everything — the valves, the gas pipes, the oven doors, even a stretcher to tip bodies into the flames — appeared at first glance in good working order, as if ready for the furnace to be reignited, affected me deeply.

In a state of shock at what I had just seen, I headed for the exit, but as I approached a Soviet-era mausoleum through which one had to walk to get out, it became apparent that wheelchair access was not part of the design.

A call of nature meant that retracing the long route back to the main entrance was not an option. So without further ado, two young Jewish men grabbed my chair and carefully carried me up the steep flight of steps.

The contrast was stark. 
On the one hand, there was the numbing knowledge that an estimated 50,000 Jews had lost their lives at Majdanek in conditions of indescribable cruelty.  On the other, there was the instinctive kindness shown to me, a non-Jew, when two people, whose Jewish faith would only 70 odd years ago have condemned them to death, quite literally carried my life in their hands.

That one moment was hugely significant.

Quite apart from the obvious proof that good is stronger than evil even in a place which still reeks of it, their kindness reminded me of a simple, timeless truth.

All of us have the power to choose whether to love or to hate, to discriminate or to disavow racism.

Moreover, that choice is made in the same place in each of us: our hearts. But it also made me realise something else.
When I set out , the overarching question was how they — the Nazis — could have done this to the Jews.

By the time I left, it was how could we have done this to ourselves. That is the single, most important thing I learnt and that, in retrospect, is why I went.

However painful the experience, I am glad I did.