Recent outbursts serve to remind us why Holocaust Memorial Day is so important, writes Richard Angell
The marking of Holocaust Memorial Day, which takes place tomorrow, is always a time for reflection and remembrance. For me, 2018 marks 20 years since I first met a survivor of the Shoah – their personal testimony has stayed with me. The choices they had to make; how they survived when others did not. I was struck by how positive they were – having witnessed the worst of human barbarism they had also seen humanity at its best.
Two decades on, and the number of Holocaust survivors able to speak to school children is seriously diminished. Time is taking the living witnesses to the world’s most industrial genocide. Organisations like the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Holocaust Educational Trust and many others do a sharing survivors’ testimonials with Britain’s school children, but the window for this is rapidly closing.
This, if nothing else, must raise from our stupor those of us who believe we must learn the right lessons. This most barbaric determination to ethnically cleanse Jews and Gypsies, repress the Jehovah’s Witnesses and murder homosexuals, disabled people, ethnic minorities, intellectuals, social democrats and socialists in occupied lands must be remembered. Children need to hear that humanity can be cruel but that each of us has the ability to stop the rise of fascism: embrace diversity, be kind to each other, and look to collaborate on solutions – not seek out scapegoats.
Despite the recent memory of the horrors of the concentration camps, fascists and antisemites work to rubbish the historical reality of the Nazis’ final solution. Postwar pamphlets were produced by extreme groups to question the existence of the camps, their role in the political system, and the Nazis’ very intentions. Fast forward 70 years, and while we still have survivors, there are people who challenge the truth of the Holocaust at events. This is no longer just the preserve of the fascists of the right. It has permeated parts of the British left – such as ‘Holocaust: yes or no’ at a fringe event during Labour party conference last September. Worse still, darling of the far-left Ken Loach indulged this dangerous sentiment: when he was challenged on this specific issue on the Daily Politics, he stated that ‘history is for all of us to discuss’.
Those of us who know the facts of the Holocaust are not up for debate must stop this hatred. Holocaust denial, or revisionism of any kind, is a particularly hateful form of antisemitism. Not only did the world lose six million Jews, we lost their future children, grandchildren and the generations after them – along with all they could have contributed to our planet. To deny their loss insults them twofold – denying not only their suffering at the hands of a murderous regime, but scrubbing their legacy from history. The latter is not any less evil than the former. Adolf Hitler’s ultimate aim was to rid Europe of any memory of the Jews. He built Auschwitz-Birkenau, the bigger offshoot of the camp that is famed for having the chilling slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’ at its gates – with no foundations, so that once the murder of Jews have been completed, the camp – and all who knew of it – could be removed from the wilderness without a trace.
Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had the foresight to realise what the Nazis had in store for them. Their act of defiance was to put the word out that every man, woman and child in the ghetto should find material of some kind – paper, leather, wood – and draw pictures, write poems; make their mark with their names and stories. They then stuffed milk churns with these messaged, and buried them in three different locations as evidence of their existence. Two of the burial sites have been found and the remnants are stored in a Warsaw museum for posterity.
These people deserve more from us. If we cannot now beat the disgrace of Holocaust denial, especially inside the Labour party, while Shoah survivors are among us, there is no way we will manage it in the future. We must ready ourselves for a world where no survivors can tell their personal story.
The Holocaust Educational Trust has rebranded in its 30th year to use the strap line ‘Defending the truth’. The events at Labour party conference were not the reason for their strategic decision making, although reports from Brighton confirmed that they were right to take this course of action. The deafening silence in response from the party leadership; the fact Loach has not been banished from any platform with a Labour speaker, and the refusal to punish Ken Livingstone’s Holocaust revisionism, demonstrates that there is much to be done. A Labour government founded HMD, and shows how far we have sunk in such a short time.
This year’s HMD theme is ‘the power of words’. It was words of Mein Kampf where much of the murderous plan was hatched. It is in blogs and tatty pamphlets that the Holocaust deniers lurk. But it is the testimony of survivors that tell it best. Their words speak a truth that we all must defend.
Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell
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