Sixty-eight years after Auschwitz: Why we still remember
This day honours the memory of the Holocaust’s victims and marks the Soviet liberation of the concentration and death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, 68 years ago on 27 January 1945.
Every year the world says “Never Forget” to genocide. But Cambodia, Ethiopia, Darfur, Indonesia, Rwanda and Bosnia are just a few examples that serve as reminders that the world forgot its promise.
As the mass media once again turns its annual spotlight onto the Holocaust, academics, museums teachers and communities prepare special activities and events and the remaining Holocaust survivors tell their stories once again.
The theme for this year is ‘Communities Together: Build a Bridge’, honouring the communities that have been destroyed and ravaged by genocide, as well as reflecting on the significance of stamping out discrimination in our communities.
Today and all last week in the lead up to Holocaust Memorial Day, there have been events all around the country – in schools, universities, town halls, community centres – to educate people about the Holocaust and its contemporary relevance.
On 22 January the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) hosted an event with David Miliband MP and the Executive Editor of The Times, Daniel Finkelstein discussing their personal connections to the Holocaust.
Last Monday Prime Minister David Cameron met with Holocaust survivor Freda Wineman and discussed the issue of learning lessons from the past and “never becoming complacent” towards prejudice. During the meeting, Cameron signed the HET’s Book of Commitment which MPs sign each year in a pledge to remember the Holocaust and fight discrimination.
The HET runs also runs the Lessons From Auschwitz Project, in which two students from each school in England, Scotland and Wales are taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau to pass on what they have learnt there to their schools and communities. Such acts of remembrance reject Holocaust denial, which doubly murders the victims by reducing the scale of the atrocities and extinguishing their memory in an arrogant attempt to rewrite history.
Holocaust Memorial Day was instigated by MP Andrew Dismore who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1999 with the HET. Shocked by the scale of the atrocities there, he was so moved by his visit that on his return to England he proposed a bill, “to introduce a day to learn and remember the Holocaust”.
Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis attempted to systematically annihilate European Jewry. Through a combination of propaganda, legislation and centuries of anti-Semitism to exploit, they murdered six million Jews. This operation spread like a cancer throughout Europe and is known as The Holocaust.
Millions of others suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime such as: homosexuals, gypsies, physically and mentally disabled people, prisoners of war, Slavic peoples, Poles and religious and political dissidents. Nazi ideology dictated that in the name of racial purification, Germany must purge herself of these subhuman “Untermenschen” or “undesirables” who did not conform to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, ruddy-cheeked Aryanised status quo. They ghettoised Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe before sending them to their deaths in mass shootings and concentration camps. Despite the time that has passed, there are still fewer Jews in the world today than in 1940 and Jews make up approximately 0.2 per cent of the global population.
Holocaust survivor Arek Hersch was born in Poland and was transported to his first concentration camp by the Nazis when he was 11-years-old. He has written a book called A Detail of History and made a documentary AREK (2005) which recount his extraordinary life.
Like many Holocaust survivors, Arek has dedicated his life to educating people about the Holocaust and retells his tale of loss, luck and growing up as a Jew during the Holocaust with same moving intensity every time. In 2009 he was awarded an MBE for voluntary service to Holocaust education.
As the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, Arek stresses the importance of commemoration “because it actually happened and every year, we have a dedication to that situation”.
“It’s very important to me as well and I light a candle for my parents and my family that were all killed. I was the only one that ever came out from the Holocaust, from all the different camps, so to me it’s very, very important.”
As concentration camps become museums, fresh grass grows over mass graves and the number of Holocaust survivors decreases with every year that passes, it becomes even more important to not let the memory of its victims fade as time passes. The past may be a different country yet the battle between national forgetting and collective European remembrance has been a struggle since 1945. Each country had a unique experience of the Second World War and so each has a multifaceted culture of remembrance towards Holocaust victims.
After the war, Germany assumed a status of victimhood. France was silent for decades on its Vichy past, highlighting the resistance movement over its collaborative shame. Italy upheld the myth of the “brava gente”. Poland, ravaged by both German and Soviet occupation, glorified the memory of the Polish resistance to Nazism in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, at the cost of remembering the boldest act of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
And in Britain, historical debate still rages as to what extent Churchill knew about the Holocaust and stoical, jolly good old Blitz spirit continues to dominate our prime-time television shows.
Israel remembers differently. Its version of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Ha’Shoah, was inauguarated in 1953 by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. It commemorates the approximately six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance during the Nazi-era.
Each country is coming to terms with the past at different times, all the while anti-Semitism, racism and genocide continue all over the world.
The twentieth-century is regarded by many scholars as the “century of genocide” therefore there is still, and always will be an urgent need to remember the victims. Amidst the clouded memories of selective remembering and forgetting, we must not let their memories fade into the past or the obscurity of a history textbook.
Holocaust Memorial Day takes a stand for the future by honouring the victims of the century of genocide, and raising awareness of crimes that the world does not want to commit again in the future. This is why the world should carry on saying “Never Forget”.
For more information visit hmd.org.ukAuschwitz, holocaust, Holocaust Memorial Day
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter