Telegraph: Why you should visit Auschwitz

On Holocaust Memorial Day, Sayeeda Warsi explains the importance of visiting the sites of atrocities.

By Baroness Warsi

It was a bitterly cold day when I first visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the wind penetrated my thick coat and warm boots. As I stood in the place where millions of people were imprisoned and murdered, the haunting atmosphere made this whole event feel real – no longer a chapter in history but an actual place where people became the victims of the biggest atrocity in European history. Standing there, feeling that cold wind, seeing those bleak surroundings, the reality of what happened hit home in a way that no history book, TV documentary or historian had managed to do.

Years later, visiting Srebrenica sent a shiver down my spine in a very similar way. Srebrenica is a name that no longer denotes a town, but the massacre of thousands of men and boys, taken from their families and summarily killed by the forces of Ratko Mladic. That rural valley and the beauty of the hillside location stood stark against the pock-marked, bullet-ridden buildings, which silently stood witness to the utter horror of what took place there in July 1995.The message of Holocaust Memorial Day is to remember the horrors of the past to prevent them from happening in the future. As an annual event, some argue that it is easy to become blasé about or immune to its message. That’s why I believe it’s vitally important that we make our history real. My experiences in Poland and Bosnia were turning points for me. After the latter, I pledged to return; so I set up Project Maja, a social action scheme, which would allow other people to share the experience I had, while giving something back to the community that had suffered so much.

I’m not the only one who places great importance on living history. I’m pleased to serve in a government that wants to give as many people as possible the chance to understand and learn about our continent’s past. By funding the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, we are enabling thousands of schoolchildren and teachers to visit Poland each year so they can realise the true horrors of the Holocaust, and challenge prejudice, discrimination and hatred today.

With the centenary of the First World War next year, we have pledged money for two children from every secondary state aided school to visit the battlefields. The scars of that bloody conflict remain there too, with shells lying at roadsides, craters revealing where explosives were set off, and row upon row of headstones marking the spots where men fell. I hope many thousands of children can come back from France and Belgium with the understanding of the sacrifice made by these young men from across world – men from different backgrounds and faiths – and how this impacts on our common British identity.

There is another important reason why we need to learn about and remember the horrors of the past: that we don’t ever repeat the mistakes in the future. As the minister with responsibility for Human Rights, I have made freedom of religion and tackling religious intolerance my priority. It’s an issue of huge concern as we worry about the persecution of minorities – those who are attacked, abused and discriminated against simply because they are different. I’m committed to making progress in this area and so last week I convened an international ministerial conference on the subject. It was heartening to speak to ministers from so many countries who are equally committed to this agenda.
I think if more people learnt about past atrocities, about the escalation of hatred, about the culmination of persecution, our world would be better guarded against repeating the mistakes of the past. Personally, if the debate is ever bogged down in jargon or obscured by diplomatic speak, I just cast my mind back to that cold, unforgettable morning I first visited Poland.