What we can learn from the Holocaust - guest blog by Dr Irena Hergottova
My job taught me that negative messages do not always make a positive change that we seek in the world. However, there’s a time and place to remember that humanity is capable of destruction on a horrific scale. Holocaust Memorial Day is one of those occasions when we pause and consider the destructive power of hatred. The power that can lead to the annihilation of whole populations and communities.
This takes me back in time. I grew up in a small town called Svaty Jur in Slovakia in the 1970s, with a house and garden overlooking a dilapidated building that used to be a Jewish synagogue (which is now going to be renovated after funding was successfully found). More than 500 worshipers would have used this building before Czechoslovakia fell under Nazi occupation. All but a few returned from the deadly concentration camps after the war. Nevertheless, the memories remained, told by their classmates and friends (my grand-father being one of them).
The story continued when my father, a history enthusiast, got in touch with a library manager in Bratislava, who happened to be one of the few people ever to escape from Auschwitz. His name was Alfred Wetzler and he described his ordeal in the book translated to English in 2007, the Escape from Hell: The Story of the Auschwitz Protocol. My father and Alfred became very good friends, and with the help of his family, memories of the survivors have been collected in the book called The Time of the Barches. We didn’t realise it at the time, but a handful of families survived the war and repatriated to Israel. They were eventually able to revisit their home town after the fall of communism in the 1990s and let me tell you - it was one very special ‘school reunion’.
What the Holocaust taught me is that our stories are not our own but always connected to the stories of others. Today, my life and work are connected to Walsall and it taught me to appreciate the diversity of faiths and cultures of our borough. I dedicated my career sharing a deeper understanding of what it means to live in a globalised and multicultural world. It’s a story that has much to offer to our children and Walsall neighbourhoods to this day.
Two years ago I visited the Polin Museum in Warsaw, the largest museum of Jewish history in the world and I couldn’t recommend it more. Not because it reminds us of the Holocaust but for opening my eyes to the rich cultural and scientific contribution Jewish communities made in Europe since the middle ages. So if you ever decide to invest in a learning experience, this would be my top tip for the future.
Dr. Irena Hergottova
Escape from Hell: The Story of the Auschwitz Protocol