Tackling hate crime in higher education: lessons from Auschwitz


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. 

Leave a Comment

DANIEL N.S. says:
14 December 2018 at 02:35

Much interesting the article about tolerance at the light of the Holocaust (SHOA ) historically esperiences .I recommend to UK universities staff 2 iissues about this 1 The exhibition of film SHOA by frenchman (of polish origin) Claude Lanzmann ( died recently ) and post debates about the film An excelent and long film very interesting and well filmed .2 The study of the work of Viktor Emile Frankl .Survivor of 4 death camps and the father of the third school of Positive Psichology called Logoteraphy from Wien Austria .In his books he accounts all what is needed to understand thotoughly and in a humanistic  way the experiences in a death camp .And much more How the faith in the future and the impossible made possible defeated in the end the criminal goal of the Nazi deth camps .I know personally the granchild of Viktor Frankl I have worked with him in the realm ofthe Logotherapy movement .I am Mathematics and Financial English specialist and teaher ofit and Analist in International economics And in my free time I collaborate with UNESCO UNITED NATIONS (FRANCE PARIS) in International Human Rights and International Education .Alumni University of Madrid (Kingdom of Spain)in Engineering

Claire Martin
Claire Martin says:
17 December 2018 at 13:37

I would also recommend 'The Choice' by Edith Eger. Like Frankl, Eger is also a survivor and her courage to tell her story leaves me speachless.

Dr Elizabeth Evenden-Kenyon
Dr Elizabeth Evenden-Kenyon says:
19 January 2019 at 11:22

'CHANGING THE CULTURE: ONE YEAR ON' (2018) was depressing reading, to see how little work was actually done on reducing hate crime in the sample institutions. There remains much to be done in the sector.

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