Holocaust Memorial Day 2015 – Keep the Memory Alive

This year, to mark the Holocaust Memorial Day and commemorate 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau, I was asked to speak at the New Vic Theatre in Stoke on Trent. The evening showcased a play called YIZKOR, meaning ‘remember’, performed by two incredibly talented young artists Esther Green and Kyle Ross. Yizkor is a special memorial prayer recited for the departed four times a year in the synagogue. Yizkor represents the overall theme of the prayer, which implores God to remember the souls of our friends and relatives who have left this world.

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak for me

I am sure that you are all familiar with this well known statement and very poignant poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller about the cowardice of German people following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent elimination of their chosen targets, one, after another after another.

I have been involved in HMD commemorations for a number of years and talking to a number of people earlier on in the day at another event, I was saying that, as I’m getting older, how hard I find standing up and speaking about the genocides the world appears to have stood by and allowed to happen. I’ve also recently found myself thinking about the perpetrators of these atrocities. Who were these people that took it upon themselves to inflict so much pain – so much suffering on their fellow human beings – because of perceived differences based, not just on religion or race but so many other things? Well, not surprisingly they were someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister.

They were just like you and me.

They would eat, drink, sleep, laugh, cry, and go home to loved ones at the end of the day.

Just like you and me.

Today is exactly 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz Birkehau, in July we will be commemorating 20 years since the genocide in Srebrenica, a place I visited twice last year and saw for myself the aftermath of the horrors that the Bosnians experienced. It’s been 40 years since Cambodia and 21 years since Rwanda. And its sounds quite staggering doesn’t it, when you say these things out aloud. Three out of the four events I’ve mentioned happened in my lifetime! And all these atrocities, and many that are still happening today, were and are being committed by people just like you and me and the person sitting next to you, in front of you and behind you. Do not be under any illusion that the perpetrators of the Holocaust, Srebrenica, Rwanda, Cambodia and countless others were some sort of red eyed 3-headed beast with horns and tails. They were ordinary people, who all came into the world kicking and screaming as someone’s tiny bouncing baby, the apple of their mothers’ eye. Anne Frank said, “Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart.” Do not misunderstand what I’m saying to be any compassion or sympathy for those who committed these atrocities. Quite the opposite. No matter how good our hearts might be, we are actually all capable, every single one of use, of going down this road and becoming the perpetrator– if the right environment is created. An environment that initially begins life where stereotypes about “that lot” are accepted, belittling jokes are not challenged (hey its just a laugh, isn’t it?). This is followed by discrimination in various areas – education, housing and employment, closely pursued by name calling, degrading, brutalizing and dehumanizing of ‘the other’ to the extent that we all become desensitized to what’s going on. We create a toxic mix of fear and hatred and make out ‘the other’ are the root cause of all the problems that are being faced by ‘us’. It doesn’t take long for the violence to follow – against property and against people which, very swiftly, if unchecked ends in the deliberate and systematic extermination of an entire people.

This years theme is keeping the memory alive. And we will shortly be seeing what I’m sure is going to be a very powerful demonstration of how these memories can be kept alive through stories, through drama, art and poetry. It is incredibly important to ensure that people, especially our younger generations, never forget the terrible crimes that have been committed against humanity. “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” We all have a moral duty to ensure these important stories are never forgotten and that our younger generations understand how these things become possible. It is only by keeping alive the memories of those who lost theirs that we will go some way towards ensuring that atrocities such as these never happen again. So I’d like to finish with the words of Yehuda Bauer a Czechoslovak-born historian and scholar of the Holocaust:

Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”

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