Holocaust Memorial Day: Only eternal vigilance can prevent a return to the hatred of the 1930s
The theme of this year’s United Kingdom Holocaust Memorial Day – How can life go on? – resonates with the harrowing stories of those who survived the genocide. More than once I have heard survivors talk of having to teach themselves every day how to live.
Their suffering did not end with the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz, the anniversary of which we will mark on Friday. More than seventy years on, coming to terms with the catastrophic loss and trauma they endured continues to be a daily test of their courage and resilience.
But this year’s theme is not only about the survivors and of triumph over fear. The rise of antisemitism and racism, spurred by the pernicious influence of the far-right and far-left across Europe, means that we have to ask ourselves how we want to live as well.
The Holocaust didn’t begin in the death camps. It began with words. It displayed the most destructive of human behaviour – indifference, ignorance and greed. The choices made by ordinary people contributed to the deaths of millions.
The spike in hate crime that we see today has parallels with the darkest days of 1930s Germany, and requires our collective vigilance to identify signs of hatred developing and to stop it before it grows. As one Holocaust survivor said recently: “I want people to know what it was like, what not standing up to racism and antisemitism can lead to.”
Only a small minority supported Hitler’s plan to kill all European Jews through mass extermination. But others – ordinary people - turned a blind eye to political rallies and Nazi propaganda that drummed up hatred and violence. Often because their lives did not connect with Jews, church leaders, businesses and schools did not speak out when Jews were stripped of their citizenship and fundamental rights. And they failed to step up when the Nazis expelled Jewish children from public schools and seized businesses and property.
Hitler was able to act because an undercurrent of hatred had seeped into everyday life – as was so vividly demonstrated during the recent special edition of BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, where among Holocaust-era artefacts was a 1938 German board game was called "Juden Raus" or "Jews Out" in which players took the role of policemen clearing Jews from a city.
Some of these dangers are now lurking in our own backyard, as we face, once again, an era of nationalism, zenophobia and strident antisemitism. Not standing up to racism and antisemitism leads us down a dark path, where the rights of minorities are stripped away, and abuse becomes a way of life.
We live in a world where police claim they are powerless to prevent neo-Nazi thugs performing Nazi salutes, as they did at a recent demonstration in Bolton, where mosques and synagogues are spray-painted with hate speech, where Jewish schools are subjected to bomb threats, where our social media networks have become a tool for extremists to peddle bigotry and hate.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front party, has already spoken of expelling the children of migrants from French schools; new immigrants and foreign labourers are living in ghettos; and certain institutions and political parties are inciting fear and hatred towards migrants and asylum seekers for political gain. Across Europe, thousands of Jews are fleeing the countries they love, citing the steady rise in the rate of antisemitism, and fear of attacks targeting their communities.
In France, another 5,000 Jews left the country they once loved last year, continuing the trend that has seen the largest mass movement of Jews since the formation of Israel in 1948. In Germany, where reported antisemitic attacks have doubled from 2015 to 2016, according to the Israeli Diaspora Ministry last weekend, Jewish people say they no longer feel safe. Even in the UK, the latest crime statistics point to a 40% surge in hate crime, with 1,200 hate crimes committed every week. These are our neighbours, our co-workers, our friends, but how often do we step in to defend them?
We do not yet know what Trump’s presidency, nor the elections in France, the Netherlands have in store. But if we continue to be anaesthetized to creeping prejudice against people on the basis of their race, ethnicity, faith or colour, then we will not get the world we want to create, but one we deserve.
Thankfully, some of our political leaders have begun to realise the scale of the threat that we face. The UK government’s robust response to antisemitism was recently underpinned by the formal adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, and I have appealed to other European leaders to follow the UK’s lead.
We need greater intelligence sharing, more resources for law enforcement agencies and stronger powers to combat online hate speech. But an international effort is needed to tackle the problem.
On January 18, the European Jewish Congress, of which I am President, hosted the 2017 International Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony with the European Parliament in Brussels. In commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, we tried to restore the identities of many who died. When they were led off to their deaths, they were stripped off their clothes and possessions, and their names and identifies were removed from them. They are faceless, which is exactly what the killers intended.
For this reason, I urge people to read the story of a Holocaust survivor. It is crucial to put a human face to the genocide, and to understand the terrifying process that saw ordinary people participate in the Holocaust. What I’d say is don’t miss the warning signs of extremism. Let us look at what the past teaches us.
The public outpouring of grief and solidarity by people from all faiths and backgrounds after the recent terrorist attacks in Europe offered hope that our communities can work closer together. It shows us we have the tools to be better.
Now more than ever, let us be vigilant, and confront hatred when we see it.