Being inspired to be a ‘light in the darkness’ feels a powerful way to honour Holocaust Memorial Day

When it comes to Remembrance, I cannot think of a more important day to take time to reflect than today – Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army in 1945. Eighty or so years lie between us and the horrors that started in Germany and then spread beyond. Most of the survivors of those times are no longer able to bear witness to them. And yet, for many descendents, that past will still be alive shaping their present. It is primarily for them, and all that they carry in their hearts, that I pay such attention to this day.

As readers of my blogs will know, any day of remembrance raises questions in me: what to remember, how to remember it and to what end? I’m always particularly interested in the editing process of our personal, collective and national memories. Which selection of people, events and actions we choose to remember and honour. And which get left out.

Edits of history come about for all sorts of reasons, not least because some memories are too painful… or shameful to re-visit. But what happens to things that happened, but aren’t included in the stories we tell about ourselves? What happens to those awkward truths or people that disrupt more favoured version of events? Obviously politics plays a big role in shaping a country’s historical narrative to support left, right or centre agendas. But I still ask, what happens to the inconvenient truths that get suppressed, denied or banished to the footnotes?

Plans for a Holocaust memorial next to Parliament

I found this recent article by Richard Evans in the New Statesman fascinating: How should we remember the Holocaust? It describes some of the multiple points of view in the on-going debate about the appropriate form, location, size, message and so much more of the proposed Holocaust Memorial and learning centre in the heart of Westminster. It’s complicated. This is exactly the kind of debate Germany has been engaged in almost incessantly since the eighties and that lies behind their extensive culture of ‘counter memorials.’ At one point it was even suggested that perpetual debate on the form of a memorial was possibly the best way to keep the memories alive.

I have many thoughts (obviously!) on what is said in the article, but I will spare you of them here (except one!) in favour of inviting you, on this day, to think about where you stand in relation to Holocaust remembrance. My ‘one’ opinion echoes that of Raphael Wallfisch, a leading international concert cellist whose mother was forced by the SS to play in the infamous women’s orchestra at Auschwitz. He insists that the proposed ‘British Values Learning Centre’ “must reflect clearly and truthfully, the complete and unvarnished truth of Britain’s role before, during and after the Jewish Holocaust…” This request for a fuller picture is echoed by many others in the Jewish community and beyond.

We are witnessing all around the world not only a rise in anti-Semitism, but also eruptions of rage as suppressed, uncomfortable truths surface. Covid-19 is giving us an opportunity to re-think how, what and why we remember. The Britain of today needs to rise to this challenge, now more than ever before. Of course, remembering and hearing the stories of the victims is paramount. But if we primarily focus on what Germany did and how the British triumphed over evil, we are missing a vital lesson. Britain also needs to look at, and learn from, what we as a nation didn’t do… but could have done.

 Statue of Sir Nicholas Winton, the “British Schindler” at Maidenhead railway station

This man, Sir Nicholas Winton, could never be accused of not having done enough. Against all odds, he smuggled 669 boys and girls, destined for concentration camps, out of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Celebrating his unbelievable bravery and life-saving initiative with candles feels a truly fitting way to mark this day. We can all join in for households across the country are being invited to light a candle at 8pm this evening, as an encouragement to us all to “be the light in the darkness.”

A few more things here:

This 4-minute film is a deeply moving testament: Story of Nicholas Winton, BBC That’s life – Short version

Holocaust Memorial Day: Sir Nicholas Winton’s statue lit up: Article about the above lit-up statue

Article in The Conversation: Plans for UK Holocaust Memorial looked promising, but now debate has stalled

BBC 2: Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel

Actions may speak louder than words, but words can lead to actions…

This first month of 2020 offered a veritable feast of potential inspiration for January’s blog. It was hard to choose. On the theme of prisons, there was BBC Two’s The Choir in which Gareth Malone has just two episodes to get young men in Aylesbury Young Offenders Institute to sing and viewers to cry. I know from experience, the latter was definitely easier. 

In cinemas, Jojo Rabbit, a risky, irreverent, bitter-sweet comedy about Hitler, breaks through taboos and somehow gets you laughing at the Nazis in ways they would have hated. Less amusing is Sam Mendes’s 1917, which, through its close-up filming method, dumps its audiences into the putteed boots and helmeted heads of two young British soldiers and sends them off on an impossible mission through hell. Within minutes one has snagged his hand on rusty barbed wire, a wound that alone would send all of us racing to A&E. But that is a mere scratch compared to what awaits him.

Another extraordinary BBC two-episoder, Lost Home Movies of Nazi Germany, gives deeper and more nuanced insights into both the lives and the beliefs of individuals living through those times. While Channel 4’s moving My grandparents’ War follows Kristen Scott Thomas and three other esteemed British actors as they uncover the brave roles their grandfathers played in the Second World War. 

2020 will be a year of 75th anniversaries relating to WW2 with more such documentaries, films, books (oh I wish mine too) and podcasts covering increasingly personal moments of suffering, bravery and evil. History has definitely shifted. No longer just a narrative of kings, politics and wars, it now hones in on the stories of individuals caught up in or affected by the decisions of their leaders. Our appetite to understand experiences from the two world wars has not abated, for they still touch us personally. But one day there will be no more contemporary witnesses to testify to the horrors, misery, fear and loss. No more survivors of the Shoah to remind us not to forget what can happen; to warn us that we are not immune.

Over the past five years there has been a 320% rise in Far-Right attacks globally. In 2018 alone, there were 387 violent anti-Semitic incidents – 35 in Germany, 68 in the UK… The Holocaust was clearly not enough to snuff out the thinking that leads to such evil. Which is why I have chosen last week’s commemoration of the 75thanniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as my blog’s focus. There the overriding message of world leaders was of the necessity for vigilance to the language of hate, discrimination and prejudice. (The full speeches are on YouTube)

I have no doubt the Jewish speakers’ speeches in Jiddish were profound and extraordinary. And Prince Charles spoke movingly about the risk of the Holocaust being placed under a glass bubble within history and urged us to re-commit ourselves to tolerance and respect. (He speaks at 1:31:30) But it was once again the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the first ever German president to address guests at Yad Vashem, who, in my view, stole the show with his impossibly difficult and brave speech. I would like to include extracts from it here because, as we approach the thankfully silent bongs of Big Ben on 31st January, I believe his words are relevant to each and every one of us to act upon in our own little ways.

Opening his address (which starts at 1.49.20) with a Jewish blessing in seemingly fluent Hebrew, he continued in English, telling the tragic stories of four individuals murdered in the Holocaust. With the humility and honesty that has become a hallmark of German leaders at such occasions, he unflinchingly took responsibility on behalf of his country:

Germans deported them. Germans burnt numbers on their forearms. Germans tried to dehumanise them, to reduce them to numbers to erase all memory of them in the extermination camps. They did not succeed…. As human beings, they live on in our memory.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier talking at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem

Referring to the Yad Vashem monument, he continued, “I stand before this monument as a human being and as a German… and I bow in deepest sorrow.”

His reference to ‘human beings’ didn’t stop at the victims and those on the side of good: “The perpetrators were human beings,” he continued, lightly emphasising each of our potential to become perpetrators or victims. “They were Germans; those who murdered, those who helped in the murdering, and the many who silently towed the line… they were Germans. The industrial mass murder of 6 million Jews, the worst crime in the history of humanity – it was committed by my countrymen. The terrible war, which cost far more than 50 million lives, is originated from my country. Seventy-five years later, after the liberation of Asuchwitz, I stand before you all as President of Germany, and I stand here laden with the historical burden of guilt.”

Gulp… I don’t know if it moves you, but I know a little of just how heavy that burden is. But as anybody dealing with criminals and/or victims can attest to, genuine admissions of guilt and acts of apology, forgiveness, restorative justice or therapy offer opportunities for reconciliation, that powerfully healing balm for wounds which threaten to fester forever. Steinmeier knows this:

“At the same time, my heart is filled with gratitude… gratitude for the hands of the survivors stretched out to us, gratitude for the new trust given to us by people in Israel and across the world, gratitude that Jewish life is flourishing again in Germany. My soul is moved by this spirit of reconciliation… a spirit, which opened up a new and peaceful path for Germany and Israel; for Germany and Europe and the countries of the world.”

I love the way Germans can speak of ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ so effortlessly…

“The eternal flame at Yad Vashem does not go out. Germany’s responsibility does not expire. We want to live up to our responsibility. By this, dear friends, you should measure us. I stand before you grateful for this miracle of reconciliation and I wish I could say that our remembrance has made us immune to evil. Yes, we Germans remember, but sometimes it seems as though we understand the past better than the present. The spirits of evil are emerging in a new guise, presenting their anti-Semitic, racist, authoritarian thinking as an answer for the future, a new solution to new problems of our age. And I wish I could say we Germans have learnt from history once and for all. But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading…”

“Of course, our age is a different age, the words are not the same, the perpetrators are not the same, but it is the same evil. And there remains only one answer: Never again. Nie wieder. That is why there cannot be an end to remembrance…”

President Steinmeier and Prince Charles
President Steinmeier hugged by President Macron
President Steinmeier hugged by Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate

I am so glad that President Steinmeier was given such heartfelt hugs on returning to his seat. After Prince Charles’s slightly awkward handshake and strained smile, President Macron looked him in the eyes and embraced him followed by Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, who looked like he would never let him go. Such displays of heart, soul and spirit warm me every time.

Further reading:

The Times of Israel: At Yad Vashem, German president says Germans haven’t learned lesson of Holocaust

The Telegraph: Holocaust is no mere ‘fact of history’: Prince Charles stands with world leaders against rise of anti-Semitism

The Guardian: The need to remember and retain the lessons of what became the Holocaust grows rather than diminishes. 

The New York Times: At Holocaust Memorial, a Survivor and Towering Moral Voice Says He ‘Cannot Forgive’

“German court sentences 94-year-old ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ to four years in prison.” Is this Justice? Or is this the German Judicial System’s attempt to atone for its appalling failure since WW2 to bring more of the real culprits to justice?

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This is an obvious choice of topic for my July blog for it touches on all my main themes: WW2 Germany, prison, punishment, forgiveness, redemption.

What we have here is a 94-year-old former SS officer whose job at the age of 21 was to sort the luggage of the new arrivals to Auschwitz and register the prisoners’ goods and valuables. Oskar Gröning was not a guard but a bookkeeper who counted the money the Nazis stole from the Jews. During the trial that started in May in the German city of Lüneburg he admitted: “It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.” Today he was sentenced to 4 years in prison after the German Courts found him guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 people.

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