IN August 1941, in reprisal for a prisoner successfully escaping Auschwitz, the Nazis indiscriminately selected ten prisoners to be starved to death. Among these ten was a young Jewish man who began to cry: My wife! My children! I will never see them again! At that moment, Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish priest, intervened. He offered his life instead of the young Jew’s.
This story of bravery and courage had a particular impact on me when I heard it as part of a recent visit to Auschwitz with the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS). This wasn’t the first time I had visited Auschwitz. I’ve walked under the haunted sign Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free) before. I’ve seen the gas chambers and the crematoria. I’ve even tried to count the thousands of shoes in the camp’s museum.
However this time, my experience was almost completely different; I visited Auschwitz with eight Australian student leaders from across the political spectrum, all committed to working with AUJS to build bipartisan coalitions to combat antisemitism on university campuses throughout Australasia.
Over the last three years, I and fellow AUJS leaders have seen first-hand the worrying spike in Holocaust denial and antisemitism on university campuses. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the World Jewish Congress found that 66 per cent of millennials don’t even know what Auschwitz is, nor that the Executive Council of Australian Jewry found that reported antisemitic incidents in Australia increased by 59 per cent in 2018.
With the Australian Jewish community boasting the highest proportion of Holocaust survivors per capita outside of Israel, we at AUJS feel a deep responsibility to actively combat this worrying phenomenon.
AUJS has worked tirelessly for many years to build strong relationships with student unions across the country. The National Union of Students (NUS) and different university student administrations have been integral partners in helping to address this issue. However, it became clear that AUJS needed to invest in a new solution, to not only further entrench these strong relationships but also change the culture on campus. This is how the AUJS Holocaust Education Tour was born.
AUJS approached eight student politicians from various political factions and backgrounds to travel to Poland for a week. The students visited museums, traveled to concentration camps and participated in educational workshops and seminars in Lublin, Krakow and Warsaw. In addition to learning about the rich and vibrant Jewish communities lost during the Holocaust, most importantly, the participants witnessed first-hand the devastation that can occur when intolerance and antisemitism are allowed to fester.
Incredibly, these experiences left each student leader committed to working with AUJS over the coming year to implement initiatives on their campuses to promote Holocaust awareness and combat antisemitism.
Since returning, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of this initiative and why it is essential to the future of our community.
First, this initiative has motivated some of Australia’s future leaders to join our community in the fight against antisemitism. The Jews of Europe may have been the Holocaust’s greatest victims, but that does not mean that only Jews carry the burden of ensuring that the Holocaust is never repeated.
Through this initiative, AUJS’s allies on campus learned and appreciated that antisemitism is not just a Jewish problem, but a human problem which needs to be tackled head on.
Secondly, and most importantly, this initiative empowered AUJS to encourage action against antisemitism in a bipartisan manner. This is the only student initiative which commits students from each key political faction to work together to achieve common aims. If our community is to ensure that antisemitism is at the forefront of policy and decision-making in Australia, we must continue to build strong relationships on both sides of the aisle.
As Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel once wrote, “there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time where we fail to protest against injustice.”
After participating in the AUJS Holocaust Education Tour, I am now confident that AUJS will no longer protest against antisemitism on campus alone. AUJS now has strong and enduring allies in the Labor, Liberal, Indigenous Australian and Independent student political communities.
Maximillian Kolbe’s bravery in 1941 saved the life of the young Jewish man who was later reunited with his wife and children. Yet to me, Kolbe’s legacy is more than just courage and self-sacrifice.
Kolbe’s is a story of the inextricable bond that can be forged between people of different nationalities, ethnicities and religions, united in the defiance of evil.
His story serves as a symbol for AUJS and the work we are committed to achieving – to building enduring, bipartisan relationships with student leaders and ensuring that “never again” truly means “never again.”
NOA BLOCH was the 2018 national political affairs director for AUJS.