I was recently commissioned by the Holocaust Educational Trust to document their exceptional ‘Lessons From Auschwitz’ project, where large groups of teenagers from mainstream schools spend one day in Poland. Often accompanying them are teachers, journalists and Members of Parliament. They visit Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and see some of the remnants of rich Jewish heritage in the region. It is truly a mind-blowing scheme, bringing first-hand Holocaust education to the mainstream.
For me, this was a sobering and challenging experience. Going to Auschwitz numerous times per month, in a professional capacity, is unusual. It’s important to engage on an emotional level, allowing the context of the surroundings to enhance the feeling of the images, whilst remaining professional and not allowing anything to detract from the task at hand. In many ways, this is like any commission I carry out, although the weight of history and horror at Auschwitz is unparalleled. It’s also vital to allow those visiting this place some space to learn, contemplate, understand, and grieve – so I was always aware of maintaining a low profile when photographing these long and strenuous days.
The day is brought to a close by the inspirational Rabbi Barry Marcus MBE, who leads a memorial ceremony at the end of the iconic train tracks, often in sub-zero temperatures with the freezing winds contributing in their own way to the understanding of how horrendous this blight of humanity had been. He sings El Maaleh Rachamim, the traditional Memorial Prayer, in Hebrew, to two hundred non-Jewish students, each standing in silence as the melody transcends the boundaries of language, many in floods of tears. Here is an audio clip of Rabbi Marcus reciting this prayer, as well as a translation beneath.
I recommend listening to this whilst scrolling through the images below.
God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the Divine Presence’s wings, within the range of the holy, pure and glorious, whose shining resemble the sky’s, to the souls of all the Children of Israel who perished in Auschwitz, Belzec, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Mydanek, Sobibor, Treblinka and every other concentration camp in Europe, for a charity was given to the memory of their souls. Therefore, the Master of Mercy will protect them forever, from behind the hiding of his wings, and will tie his soul with the rope of life. The Everlasting is their heritage, and they shall rest peacefully upon their lying place, and let us say: Amen.
Especially in a climate of malicious Holocaust denial and rising anti-semitism, these educational trips are paramount to understanding what humanity is capable of, what human beings can do to one another in their darkest moments. As Rabbi Marcus says, human beings have flown into space, they have conquered every distance known to man, apart from one – the distance between one another. If nothing else, it is hoped that students fly back to the UK with a determination to treat those around them with a little more sweetness, dignity and respect.
Here are some images from across numerous trips…