This blog is written for Holocaust Memorial Day by our Communications and Fundraising Officer Anna, whose Jewish grandfather fled Nazi Germany in 1933.
Today, on the 27th of January, we mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Today serves as a reminder of the worst that humanity can do, as we remember all those who were murdered during the Holocaust, under Nazi persecution and the genocides which followed in places such as Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur . The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Ordinary People’, serving to highlight the role of the ordinary people in perpetrating genocide, how ordinary people were bystanders to genocide, and highlighting that it is ordinary people who are victims of genocide.
During the Holocaust over six million Jewish people, two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe, were systematically murdered by a regime that did not believe in their right to live, who saw them as somehow inferior. As time goes by, it’s important to remember that each of these six million were human beings; an ordinary person targeted purely for one aspect of who they were. Millions of others had their lives devastated, torn apart by a hatred that killed loved ones, tortured them, and forced them to flee and leave their homes behind. My grandfather was one of those forced to flee. Whilst he was extraordinary to me, he was just an ordinary person, a lawyer, a son, a brother, who was separated from his family because of genocidal hatred.
It is well documented that it was not only Jewish people who were victims of the Nazi genocide. Between 200,000 and 500,000 Roman and Sinti people were murdered, and countless more were imprisoned, made to do forced labour and undergo forced sterilisation. The Nazis targeted anyone who didn’t live up to their warped ideals, including – but not limited to – Black people, gay people and disabled people. Every one of these victims was someone with a story, whose life was cut short by hatred. Every one was someone who was loved by family and friends. Every one was an ordinary person.
What past genocides have tragically shown us is that they cannot happen without the involvement of ordinary people. This was seen so starkly when people turned on their neighbours during the Rwandan genocide, swept up by a hatred which made them kill people they had once shared a meal with.
This Holocaust Memorial Day is happening in the context of rising antisemitism. A report by the Community Security Trust found that antisemitic incidents hit a record high in 2021, whilst a recent investigation found that antisemitic incidents in English schools had almost trebled in the past five years. Kanye West -now known as Ye -recently faced a huge backlash for his antisemitic comments, where he parroted highly offensive conspiracy theories and tropes and made threatening remarks around Jewish people. What’s most worrying about these comments is that they have entered the mainstream; whilst he’s been criticised, he’s unfortunately not a lone voice, with other celebrities also making similar comments. Locally in Bristol, antisemitic hate crimes reported to the police were almost at the same level as anti-Muslim hate crimes in the last Quarter (October to December). This is despite our local Jewish community being tiny in comparison.
As time passes, and with people at risk of forgetting where antisemitism and other prejudices can lead, it’s all the more important to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. We spoke to the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, who powerfully articulated just why it is that marking Holocaust Memorial Day is so vital.
They said: “We are in danger of forgetting that Doctors who swore oaths to ‘Do no harm,’ purposefully did extraordinary harms, that Architects drew plans for gas chambers, Engineers worked out the structural loading of ovens and designed them too. Scientists developed poisons…People with skills and qualifications which should benefit humanity turned them instead to creating evil, and most friends and neighbours, at best stood by and, at worst joined in. We are in danger of forgetting this and thinking of it as just an overwhelming numbers game, how many were killed here, or there, etc.”
“I believe that the primary purpose of Holocaust Memorial Day is to draw attention to how easily people can lose their humanity; not in a frenzied madness, or in a terrorizing dictatorship, but in cold, calculated, re-calibration of the world. A drawing in of ordinary people who believe themselves to be good until they are so deeply part of it that they must redefine what it means to be ‘good’ in order to justify themselves as still human.”
It’s so important to be aware of the impact that hate can have; genocides do not happen in a vacuum but are propagated by propaganda, stirred up by factions of the media and politicians who find a scapegoat and run with it. Too often, it’s ordinary people who are then left to pay the price. Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us of the importance of allyship; genocide cannot exist without hatred and it’s up to all of us to speak out against it. Challenging hatred should not be an extraordinary act.