We stood in the pouring rain praying peace and release for the dead. Surrounding us were rivulets that formed pools among the grey gravel as we stared out across this haunted and desolate place, penned in by barbed wire and the horrors of the millions who were killed there. It was a humbling place to stand as schoolgirls learning about history, ethics and genocide.
Over the previous days, I had been spending time listening to my Jewish best friend as she tried to come to terms with the Nazi regime’s utter determination to destroy her entire race. Although she would describe herself as agnostic, the events we were learning about on the trip were a deep part of her heritage and identity. I can never fully understand what it feels like to be part of that heritage, and do not wish to say that my experience on this trip was more profound than hers. However, my visit to this place of trauma was powerful not only because it taught me about the experiences of Jewish people, but also because it broke down religious barriers between me and another friend.
It was at Auschwitz that I first realised the power of connecting with someone of another faith. We were both fifteen, wrestling with what we saw in front of us, and what hung in the air about us. There was a heaviness in the air; birds do not sing at Auschwitz. Indeed, one is aware of the spiritually dark place it is as one enters. As a Christian, I was praying for God’s peace to enter into such a place, that it would be transformed and healed. My Hindu friend was praying for the souls of the dead, asking that they be released from this place of horror and freed to rest peacefully. And so we stood there, each praying, both believing that places can be transformed, that people, dead and alive, can be freed from places that bind them and that our prayers would be effective. As we spoke about it afterwards, we were both so thankful for the chance to learn more about each other’s faith. I felt understood and accepted by someone of a different faith in a way that surprised me; there was so much beauty in the level of mutual respect and understanding of what the other was experiencing, processing and trying to practise. I sometimes feel that those with no faith struggle to understand why and how my faith plays such a large part of my life, and it is therefore comforting to find another with whom I can share such an integral part of who I am, even if they do not share my faith.
When I came to university, I experienced this again with some of the girls I lived with in my first year. We would sit at dinner, a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu, and have the most amazing and refreshing conversations about what it was like to live as a woman of faith in our increasingly secularised culture. As with my friend at school, I loved learning about the experiences of people from different faiths. We shared a deep understanding of the holistic nature of our faiths and the ways they encompass our whole lives, from how we spend our time and money to how we treat other people. On the one hand it was interesting to learn about the differences between our religions, but on the other, it was hugely enriching to see how many of our values transcended this religious difference and brought us closer together through the acknowledgement of shared experience. Often, we felt that the way society viewed our faiths was at odds with what we practised, and we were desperate for others to engage and ask us questions about what our faith meant to us. This was a space in which we were all free to do that, discussing the discrimination that people of faith experience within the press and online, expectations of what marriage should and could look like, or simply the ways that we prayed. I am so grateful for the chance to connect with others, to learn from them, and to have my mind broadened in doing so.
So to the women who have shared their faith and heart with me over the years, thank you. Please keep talking; I would love to listen.
Lizzie Winfrey is a final year student at the University of St Andrews studying Modern History and English Literature. When she’s not studying, you can find her singing to her heart’s content or windsurfing on the North sea.