The Holocaust is a contemporary issue. It cannot, and should not, be an event consigned to history.
Paradoxically, the reasons for this lie in its ancient roots. The Holocaust is not bound by a few years in the mid-20th century; instead, it stretches back, past the parameters of the modern era, into the medieval age and beyond to the inception of antisemitism.
Would the Holocaust have been possible without the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Without Dreyfus? Without the Spanish Inquisition? Antisemitism, discrimination against Jews of all walks of life, was not a new concept in 1933, but was widespread and prevalent in many countries. It is therefore incorrect to let the Holocaust be consigned to the period of the Third Reich; the Nazi regime manipulated and amplified the latent prejudices of its citizens. It did not create them.
This makes the Holocaust a contemporary issue because it demonstrates the atmosphere in which genocide can take place. How many people pertain to prejudices which are unfounded and illogical, but which are unconsciously adhered to? These beliefs survive both because they are socially acceptable and because they remain unchallenged.
There remains in our society a degree of antisemitism, but furthermore levels of xenophobia, Islamophobia, a fear of the travelling community, of black and Asian communities. Indeed a recent survey has shown these prejudices to be on the rise.
It is therefore important to remember the Holocaust because it is an example of how these trends could evolve into something far more threatening.
However, the Holocaust is more than a warning from the past. The human cost of the loss of six million lives is incalculable; consider what could have been achieved by those who died, what could have been discovered, written, invented and prevented. There is a very long list of Holocaust survivors who have positively contributed to society but they represent a tiny proportion of the talent and promise of the generations of European Jews lost to us.
Many did their best to assimilate wherever they were by simply building new ordinary lives for themselves. Nevertheless, the bereavement caused by the loss of family and friends was a disaster of huge proportions which caused unimaginable grief and suffering that continues today.
To put it another way murder is the greatest crime that can be committed. The Holocaust was not the single murder of six million people, but six million individual murders. Remembering the Holocaust is an important act in itself, and honouring its victims, both Jews and gentiles, particularly those with no family left to remember them, is a further reason why the work of the British Holocaust Commission will be so important.
There are many misconceptions concerning the Holocaust. For example, it is not widely known that almost half of Holocaust victims did not die in extermination camps, but instead were shot, starved or died of illness. Why does this matter? Chiefly because some of the misconceptions are potentially insulting and worrying. It is hard for young people to comprehend to vileness of the Holocaust without some justification, even if they have studied both Nazi ideology and the aims and methods of Nazi propaganda in detail.
Whilst the increased use of social media and technology has huge potential for good, it also means that false information and ideas are easily spread and it is often hard to distinguish between fact and rumour. Without thorough education covering the Holocaust and events leading up to it, it is possible that it could be forgotten or the truth misrepresented in the future.
Education is a key tool in ensuring that the Holocaust is not forgotten. The Holocaust Education Trust and other similar bodies play a key role in teaching the lessons that can be learnt from the Holocaust. I was lucky enough to benefit from taking part in the Lessons from Auschwitz programme earlier this year. It changed my perspective on the Holocaust by transforming it into a relevant issue.
The trip to Auschwitz was integral in this because it removed a barrier between myself and the Holocaust- suddenly, it was no longer just part of my A-level syllabus. I was forced to confront the reality that the people who had died in the gas chambers, ghettos and prison cells had been individuals. I was also made aware of just how great the suffering was, because I saw for myself the cattle trucks and the appalling conditions that prisoners lived in.
Even going in a group of 200 teenagers did not detract from the experience. Instead, it enhanced it because, whilst parts of the trip were very private experiences, we benefitted from the thoughts and reflections of others because it enabled us to process what we saw.
It was noticeable that although we all came away with very different impressions- personally it took a couple of weeks until I had fully “digested” the experience – the trip to Auschwitz strengthened every single person’s resolve to tackle discrimination on all levels – something which was reflected in the follow-up seminar after the trip. Now, having seen Auschwitz-Birkenau, when we hear of modern hate-crimes we know it is simply not acceptable to be “casually racist” or stand idly by. The programme created 200 more informed and responsible teenagers who know why the Holocaust is important and will certainly never forget it.
Although the LFA programme does fantastic work it is unfeasible to take every young person in the UK to Krakow for the day. There already is an element of teaching about the Holocaust in secondary schools; the problem lies in trying to prevent it becoming impersonal. Talks by Holocaust survivors, films and books can help avoid the problem. They also encourage dialogue and discussion amongst communities about the Holocaust that is essential in ensuring that it is remembered, commemorated and learnt from.
Local initiatives make the issue accessible to a larger audience, helping to tackle the misconceptions people might have and raise the Holocaust as a relevant issue. In my own community, in the South Lakes, Holocaust Memorial Day was marked with a service and interactive exhibition covering the experiences of child survivors of the Holocaust sent to the Lakes to recover. Initiatives such as this revive Holocaust remembrance and rejuvenate the debate and discussion as to how to commemorate it.
Both the moving and informative local initiatives and other, wide-ranging and helpful national resources can be better utilised. In order to remember the Holocaust and create meaningful discussion about it the word needs to be spread and bodies such as the Holocaust Commission can play a role in ensuring that they are accessible and interactive. This will ensure future generations are engaged.
Discussion about the Holocaust is particularly important when we realise that, unfortunately, it is no isolated event. The 20th century saw several other acts of horrific violence ranging from the murder of over a million Armenians in Turkey, to ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia while tribal tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda resulted in mass slaughter.
Currently, there are serious concerns over the treatment of dissidents in North Korea as well as genuine cause for worry about the Rohingya Islamic minority in Burma who, in a recent census, were not allowed to state their own ethnic identity. Without a lively and proactive debate in the UK about the Holocaust and related issues, there is a real possibility that further hate crimes could go unchecked, and that discrimination and prejudice could flourish, particularly if the memories of the actions of those who fought against it, such as the British diplomat Frank Foley who enabled many Jews to escape from the Holocaust, are forgotten.
A quote of George Santayana is widely used when talking about the Holocaust: “He who does not learn from History is doomed to repeat it”.
This is undoubtedly true. However, I would go further than Santayana. It is not enough just to learn from history, or just to remember the Holocaust, as important as that is. It is also imperative to tackle, challenge, debate, discuss, expose and teach so that it remains a contemporary issue. It will become harder, as time goes by, to find first-hand accounts to stimulate this discussion, so perhaps the most important path to follow will be the recording of witnesses – something which has already been done in Israel at Yad Vashem and by Steven Spielberg at the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education with success.
By spreading these testimonials it is possible to ensure that the importance of the Holocaust is not forgotten, no matter how many years pass, as memories are passed on to the next generation. We are lucky to have this opportunity to safeguard the memory of the Holocaust, promote tolerance and protect the multi-cultural society in which we live.
Written by Charlotte Cohen