Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. I know it’s a bit of a “heavy” subject, but I really feel it’s an important day to mark.
This year marks 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, but on Holocaust Memorial Day we don’t just remember those who were killed in the Holocaust. Since then there have been further horrors in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. In fact, this year marks 20 years since the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
Seventy years after the Holocaust, we all know the bare facts: millions of Jews murdered, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses. We know about the death camps. We know about the Zyklon B gas, the crematoria, the striped uniforms. In the years immediately after the war though, people didn’t really understand what had been going on.
We seem to conveniently forget that in the years immediately before the war, and indeed during the war, Jews were fleeing Germany and Western Europe in droves. Many of them came to England, and the English people weren’t particularly nice to them. Jewish refugees were blamed for all sorts and were often shunned by the general population. After the war, more refugees came – and were called liars. Many people thought they were making up the things they said.
It’s easy to put the Holocaust into school history books, and turn it into black and white: the nasty Nazis persecuted the Jews, and then we went and rescued them. The truth is a little less black and white. Yes, the Nazis persecuted the Jews… but it wasn’t secret. From the moment the Nazis got into power and began their persecution, Jews began leaving Germany – and they didn’t exactly come out saying “oh, we just fancied a change of scenery.” Jews left Germany telling stories of yellow stars, of beatings and killings and persecution. We allowed around 90,000 Jews into the UK before the war, but then we pretty much closed the door and told them to bugger off – despite the fact we had a more than vague idea of what was going on. Parliament did allow 10,000 Jewish children into the country, but their parents were denied visas. In many cases, these children were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust.
In 1938, in response to the huge numbers of European Jews fleeing persecution, Franklin D Roosevelt put together the Evian Conference. All of the countries outside of Nazi territory knew there was something going on; there were thousands upon thousands of Jews pouring into the UK, the US and other countries. And yet, many were turned away.
The Holocaust is not just something that happened over there, to them. Jews came to the UK, and we turned them away. They went to Israel, but the British were in charge there too, and they were turned away. Jews all over Europe were turned on by friends and neighbours. The Nazis did the gassing and shooting, but the whole of Europe was complicit. Remember the famous Edmund Burke quote, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
When I think of this, I think of the current news stories about antisemitic sentiment. I think of the rows about immigration and news reports about refugees and asylum seekers.
The Holocaust was not a one-off. Similar things have happened since, and many believe they will happen again. Many Rwandans believe it won’t be long before the tensions that have continued to bubble just beneath the surface rise to the top again.
The sort of hatred that dehumanises people and judges them for their race, their religion, their country of origin, the colour of their skin is alive and well all over the world. It starts with generalisations about a group of people, and can spread really quickly. It is so important, today more than ever, that we remember: the bodies we’ve all seen in those black and white photos, being bulldozed into mass graves or laid out in massive piles, they were all people. They were human beings just like you and me with parents and siblings and children and friends and lives.
It is so important that we teach our children about the humanity of all races and religions. We are all humans. When we begin to consider ourselves as better than others because of our race or religion, we are on a slippery slope.
I will leave you with this video, taken from BBC’s Eichmann Show. I believe it is from the original 1961 documentary that broadcast Eichmann’s trial to the world.