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A stone sculpture of the star of David at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Ivan Vdovin / Alamy

The Holocaust: remembering the powerful acts of ‘ordinary people’

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” the British author LP Hartley once wrote, hinting at the mystique of history – the idea that people in the past were somehow different to us in the 21st century.

As many historians will tell you, it’s not particularly useful to project modern values onto the past, or to judge historical figures by contemporary ideals. But the idea that the past far away in space and time, is also flawed. It encourages people to overlook the fact that those involved in seismic past events were real human beings, just like ourselves.

Nowhere is reconciling that distance between past and present more important than in the case of the Holocaust, which saw the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Drawing on this idea of making the past less of a “foreign country”, the official theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 in the UK is “ordinary people”.

Difficult questions

Holocaust Memorial Day is the annual opportunity for people around the world to remember and learn about – and from – the genocide. As the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has outlined in its theme vision:

Genocide is facilitated by ordinary people. Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group.

The theme of ordinary people encourages us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and society. Those who faced persecution were ordinary people who could do little to stop their fate.

We also tend to talk of the Nazi regime in sweeping terms – as an amorphous spectre of cruelty and fanaticism. But we must also remember that this regime was composed of ordinary men, women and children. It was a human phenomenon. Even Adolf Hitler – who as the figurehead of the Third Reich has become almost an abstract symbol of evil – was ultimately one single man.

The Holocaust as part of the British story

Human stories can bring us closer to the Holocaust in an emotional sense. But in the UK, it is possible to move closer to the past in a geographical sense. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust notes that “while the theme for HMD 2023 focuses on ordinary people, this can be extended to include ordinary locations, or sites”.

It can be tempting to think that the Holocaust happened “over there”, far away in mainland Europe. But the Holocaust is part of British history, albeit a complex one.

During the 1930s, an estimated 80,000 Jewish refugees came to Britain. Between November 1938 and September 1939, approximately 10,000 children were transported to Britain as part of the Kindertransport.

Yet, even though by 1941 allied governments were receiving incomplete reports of mass killings in Eastern Europe, no decisive action was taken against the Holocaust specifically. Until the end of the Second World War, the British war cabinet maintained that military victory would be the most effective way to end the genocide (or what was known of it).

Save the children

Britain was involved in responding the Holocaust in several different ways, as illustrated by the stories of two ordinary people. One was Nicholas Winton, a career banker who petitioned the UK government relentlessly between 1938 and 1939 for Czech children to be allowed entry to the UK. The other was Jane Haining, matron of a Jewish school in Budapest who remained with her charges and was sent to Auschwitz.

With a small group of helpers, Winton worked tirelessly to evacuate as many children from Prague as possible, ensuring the safe passage of 669 children to host families in Britain.

Jane Haining’s fate proved more tragic. A committed member of the evangelical United Free Church of Scotland, she took up her position in the girls’ hostel of the Jewish mission school in Budapest in 1932. Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, she decided to remain with her young wards, despite her church’s advice that she should return to Edinburgh.

Haining’s assistance of persecuted Jews began before the German invasion of Hungary. From 1940, Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied states had started to arrive in Budapest, and some were taken in by Haining and her school.

The assistance Haining had offered Jews had not gone unnoticed by the new German occupiers of Budapest. In late April 1944, Gestapo officers arrived at the hostel to arrest the Scot for possession of illicit radio receivers. During questioning, the charges were broadened to include working among Jews and political activity, amongst other allegations.

Following confession under duress, she was transferred to the Kistarcsa transit camp on the outskirts of Budapest. In May 1944, Haining was deported to Auschwitz, where she died of starvation three months later.

Bringing the Holocaust closer to home

Between 2020 and 2022, there was a 22% rise in antisemitic incidents in the UK, while distressing examples of genocide continue to proliferate around the world.

To ensure new generations understand what happened to the Jews and other minorities during World War II, studying the Holocaust has been a compulsory part of the national curriculum in England since 1991 (although there is no formal requirement in Scotland or Northern Ireland). Thirteen European countries have legislation that criminalises Holocaust denial and the Nazi message, but this is not illegal in the UK.

In the current climate of social, cultural and national division, it is ordinary people who have the power and the responsibility to support efforts to learn from and about the Holocaust, so that appalling events from history are not repeated. Education is a vital tool to sow cultural appreciation and overcome social division, but there is always more to be done.

As it was demonstrated over and over during World War II, it is ordinary people, working together, who are capable of achieving extraordinary things.

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