A moral duty to remember

If ‘never again’ is to mean anything, we must help those subjected to genocide not only to survive, but to live again, writes Grace Skelton

‘For the survivor death is not the problem. Death was an everyday occurrence. We learned to live with Death. The problem is to adjust to life, to living. You must teach us about living.’

These are the words of Elie Wiesel; author, Nobel peace prize winner and a Holocaust survivor who dedicated much of his life to campaigning against genocide across the world. His words remind us that when we stop and reflect on Holocaust Memorial Day, we have a moral duty to remember not just those who died, but the survivors as well.

It is understandable that when faced with the images and the reality of genocide, there is a tendency to focus on why they happened and what could have been done to stop it. Political leaders proclaim ‘never again’ and the world reflects on the extreme hardship that people have gone through. Generally much less attention is shown to the second half of Wiesel’s message, the bit about living.

Genocide never occurs in isolation and it is what makes the aftermath all the more challenging. Jews were not living ordinary lives in Nazi Germany one day and the next day rounded up and sent straight to death camps, they were subject to an appalling escalation of racism, prejudice and isolation for years beforehand. Many in Germany blamed the loss of the first world war on the Jews, indeed the Nazis were not the only antisemitic political party founded in the early years of the Weimar Republic. This rise in antisemitism led to an increase in hate speeches, violence and the desecration of graveyards long before they Nazis took power and escalated the hatred further. For the survivors of the Holocaust, there was no option of returning home and carrying on with life as it was before. Some of those who did were killed in pogroms after the Holocaust.

For communities which are subject to genocide, there is no home left. No community to return to. Perhaps even no family to be reunited with. So what is to be done? We cannot rewrite history, but we can learn from it. Holocaust Memorial Day is a day to remember, but also to learn the necessary lessons so that ‘never again’ really means it.

‘Never again’ necessitates strong political willpower. There are international development charities who do vital work trying to help victim of genocides and other atrocities once the killing is over, but these charities need the support of governments in order to affect the kind of change needed. A charity can only do so much without the necessary political will to rebuild after a tragedy. And there is such a tragedy occurring before our eyes now.

It is hard to find an accurate figure for how many Syrian refugees there are in Turkey, Europe and the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, but it runs into the millions. I cannot think of a group of people who the words of Wiesel apply to more in 2017, in fact Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef recently described the situation in Syria as a ‘small holocaust.’ The refugees may have survived Aleppo. They may have survived running across battlefields to the relative safety of a refugee camp. Indeed, some of them have even survived crossing the Mediterranean Sea in an overcrowded dinghy. But they are not living.

When a long term ceasefire is brokered and a peace settlement is finally agreed, we have a moral obligation to help these people live again. They have no home, no community, no economy, but the attention on their plight is likely to disappear fast once the bombs have stopped. Yet the trauma will be with them forever. Conventional history on the Holocaust usually stops when the camps were liberated in 1945, but the pain and suffering continues for generations.

The world Jewish population only reached pre-Holocaust levels last year, so on Holocaust Memorial Day this year, I will be thinking of Elie’s words and of those who struggle to survive the years that follow atrocities. They deserve our help building a new life.

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Grace Skelton is a former national secretary of Labour Students. She tweets at @graceskelton

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