We rarely ask ourselves why we should remember the Holocaust. We simply assume that we should. However, if we only go through the motions uttering phrases such as “we remember” and “never again”, remembering the Holocaust will quickly become a meaningless ritual.
Just saying that we don’t want something like the Holocaust to happen again has not really worked: the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Darfur are terrible reminders that we do not seem to be able, or willing, to learn from history. But what is worse is that what made the Holocaust, and other genocides, possible is still virulent all around us: preconceptions and prejudice, and the rejection or the fear of someone just because he or she is different, is not “one of us”.
Remembering atrocities has several layers; it is part of a multi-layered healing process. The survivors try to come to terms with their physical wounds and psychological traumas and their loss of family and friends; post-conflict societies try to understand the recent events. Remembering, therefore, must be linked to the search for truth, encouraging everyone to tell their story, listening and sharing.
So, remembering is also linked with reconciliation. If victims of atrocities remember too graphically, there is the danger that remembrance encourages a desire for revenge or retaliation, which is what we have seem, for example, in former Yugoslavia. If there is amnesia on the side of the perpetrators, victims of genocide are left on their own with their mourning. Sometimes, there can be some longer-term benefit of a period of amnesia albeit at a short-term cost: in Germany, for many years the Holocaust did not feature highly, if at all, in the public discourse, but with the distance of a generation, German society was able to remember and both accept its responsibility and mourn the deaths caused.
But 69 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, with the last witnesses of the Holocaust who could still speak with the authenticity of the survivor passing away, how can the new generations without the experience the Nazi period and the persecution and extermination remember the Holocaust?
For remembering to remain meaningful, it is necessary that we relate the Holocaust to our present situation, which means asking ourselves what attitudes and prejudices still prevail around us, and within ourselves, that contributed to that what made the Holocaust possible.
Far-right on the rise
Xenophobia is on the rise again. There is a surge in support for far-right nationalist political movements, such as Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, whose leader held a rally in London this weekend. The recent end of transitional controls on free travel for Romanians and Bulgarians in the EU raised irrational fears of being “swamped by migrants” in many of the richer EU member states, not least Britain, shamelessly fuelled by the popular press and politicians angling for votes. A Romanian trainee doctor in Britain was approached by patients who were surprised that she did not look like a “Gypsy”. Discrimination and marginalisation of Roma have increased dramatically across Europe since the collapse of communism, and television programmes such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding in Britain fuel further prejudices.
Ethnic conflict is escalating in many parts of the world; South Sudan and Myanmar are only two of far too many examples. The Israeli West Bank barrier raises serious human rights concerns. Recent anti-gay legislation in Russia and in many African countries is as much a response to homophobia as it is fuelling it. Tabloids in Britain are agitating against “benefit scum”, pitting “strivers” against “skivers” in order to justify budget cuts, with television programmes such as “Benefits Street” riding on this negative wave.
Holocaust Memorial Day is a day to ask ourselves how far we have come in accepting difference into our understanding of community and how far we as individuals are willing to stand up to bullying and discrimination. It is a day for remembering what happened between 1933 and 1945, but it must go further and address attitudes which drive people to discriminate against others – whether it be for their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their political views, a physical handicap, or whatever else mainstream society might deem “unacceptable” because it is regarded as different from “normal” society. As the Holocaust reminds us, it is only a short step from “unacceptable” to “unworthy” and ultimately “unworthy of life”.
Holocaust Memorial Day must be an uncomfortable day which puts us out of our normal comfort zone. We have to face up to issues which are painful – our own deep-rooted prejudices: the Hitler within us. But when we say “Never again”, this must apply to everyone. The specific circumstances of the Holocaust are unlikely to recur. Therefore, whilst never losing sight of the significance of the Holocaust for European Jewry and Sinti and Roma, we must assure that everyone is given a voice and is listened to, no matter who they are: As the Roman Catholic nun and distinguished Holocaust scholar Carol Rittner said: “We must expand our universe of human concern to include not just those who are ‘our own’, but also those who are ‘not our own’ yet with us in our common humanity.”
This is the message of the mass graves at former concentration camp sites where thousands of dead lie indiscriminately next to each other. This is why we need to remember the Holocaust. If the Holocaust tells us anything loud and clear, it tells us that if the human rights of one group are violated, no group can feel safe.