Most Holocaust survivors I meet don’t live as victims. Ask and they will talk openly and honestly about the loved ones they lost and the horrors they saw and suffered, while insisting you eat half their kitchen.
But for them, daily life isn’t about personal suffering, it’s about warning as many young people as possible about the pitiless depths humanity can sink. It’s about warning how even a liberal European country like Germany can go from modern democracy to murderous dictatorship in a matter of months. It’s about showing how ordinary people, yes, just like you and me, can take part in genocide their thousands and look away in their millions.
That’s why today is so important to every survivor – and everyone.
After six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War the world said ‘never again’. Yet ever since it’s been ‘again and again’. Unspeakable horror follows unspeakable horror. German philosopher Georg Hegel knew it 100 years before Hitler when he said: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Millions of innocents have been killed in Cambodia (two million dead) Rwanda (one million), Bosnia (8,000 killed in two days) and Darfur, the first genocide of the 21st century, where 500,000 have died. Today the Rohingya are being killed in Myanmar, the Nuer in South Sudan, Yazidis in Syria and Iraq and more than one million Uighur Muslims are currently imprisoned in China. It happened then, it’s happened since and it’s happening now.
We live in fragile times, in an era not unlike the 1930s, with rising nationalism across Europe, hot heads in the Kremlin and White House, politicians peddling hate and jihadists determined to start another Holy War.
Here in the UK, at least, the legacy of Holocaust survivors seems secure. The Nazis’ crimes are part of the national curriculum, the Government, through the Holocaust Educational Trust, sends two students from every college in the country to Auschwitz, the Imperial War Museum’s new Second World War and Holocaust galleries, due to open next year, will be an unrivalled resource for teaching about mankind’s darkest hour and a new national memorial and learning centre is to be built next to Parliament.
On this landmark anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp where one million of Hitler’s victims were murdered, we of course pay tribute to the dwindling number of survivors.
But, more importantly as far as they are concerned, we pledge to continue their work when the last of them is gone.
That means embracing not isolating minorities, challenging not excusing intolerance and thinking about our personal duty to stand up to prejudice the moment we see it.
If we want to keep the Holocaust where it belongs – in the past – we need to keep talking about it.
• First published in the Daily Mirror