Thursday 27th January is Holocaust Memorial Day, the day designated by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 to mark the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust. And though it is a dark topic with which to start a year that I feel sure is going to be lighter than previous years, it could hardly be a more important one.
Why, or even that we need to remember the victims of the Holocaust is a topic I have explored in so many of my previous blogs that I hope it can be taken as a given. Engaging in the stories of lives lost, thinking of all those still suffering today from the devastating impact of their own or their family’s trauma are two ways we can contribute to the day. And The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust offers a host of other ideas on how to engage in this year’s theme: One Day.
You didn’t think about yesterday, and tomorrow may not happen, it was only today that you had to cope with and you got through it as best you could.
Iby Knill, survivor of the Holocaust
I remember a German uncle saying almost exactly the same words as those in the above quote. As a young soldier captured and imprisoned during the Second World War, he was on the ‘other side’ to the victims of the Holocaust. But behind both experiences were human beings trying to cope with a situation that was beyond their control. It makes me realise anew how fine and sometimes seemingly random the line can be between becoming a victim, a hero, a bystander or a perpetrator.
The pandemic along with the tragic stories we learn of almost daily in the media are regular reminders that any of us can become victims regardless of our standing in life: of ill health, sexual or racially motivated violence, of war or natural disasters. But how often do we consider or reflect on our potential to become perpetrators?
Looking closely at our current times, the case for heeding the warnings of what happened in Germany and learning the lessons is as vital as ever. Because though the victims of discrimination, oppression, violence may have changed, the seeds and first shoots of the attitudes, politics and power dynamics that made them are all too evident around us.
‘One Day’ therefore feels a relevant approach to adopt in our own lives. For this one day that we each have, right now, this one moment is the only time that we can truly be, or act. The only time we can choose how to be or act. In times of relative comfort, safety and security, luxury even, it is easy to make choices that feel good and to do the right thing. But if circumstances worsen, as they well could not least with climate change, and we find ourselves in situations of want or lack – of water, food, heat – how will we behave then? How do we already behave towards people we fundamentally disagree with or disapprove of, whether anti-vaxxers or adamant mask-wearers; partying Tories or statue-toppling Black Lives Matter followers; refugees or fuel-guzzling private jet fliers? Do we remain silent, protest, abide by or break rules, post hateful messages, close ranks with those we perceive as ‘our own’? Or do we just go along with whatever makes life easiest, even if we know it is probably the weaker or wrong thing to do?
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
Questions of conformity, national identity, political authority, following orders and rules are all major themes in the late Luke Holland’s last but arguably most important film, Final Account, that is being released on Holocaust Memorial Day. Over the course of nearly a decade, Holland, much of whose mother’s family were murdered in the camps, collected interviews with surviving witnesses and participants of Hitler’s Third Reich. The questions driving his painful and ambitious quest to make sense of his own past seem to be: Why did it happen? How did it happen? And the only people who he felt could possibly offer an explanation were those who were there, who saw what was happening and either went along with it or actively participated in it.
As the elderly interviewees reconstruct their own experiences, they offer a whole range of responses from deep remorse and guilt to on-going, unchanged anti-Semitic beliefs. Though it often makes uncomfortable and disturbing viewing, through their words you begin to gain a far broader picture of Nazism and the Holocaust than the familiar images and uniforms of our imaginations. Here you see the human faces, the human beings behind them. People who could be your grandparents or parents. Or in my case, were.
The desire to understand that drove Holland is the same impetus behind my talks on the subject and my forthcoming book In My Grandfather’s Shadow, which will be published in July this year. It too looks at the real human beings who lived through the times. For like Holland, and maybe all who watch Final Account, I can’t help feeling the urgency behind not only listening to these last remaining witnesses of the atrocities, but understanding the people behind them. And then asking oneself the all-important question: what would I have done?
I believe that as well as remembering and engaging with the stories of the victims and survivors, Holocaust Memorial Day serves as a warning reminder to all of us not to allow this past to become lost in the passage of time simply because those for whom it was the present are passing away. The Holocaust still is and must remain of huge contemporary significance for generations to come as we individually and collectively strive to assure that such things never, ever happen again.
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