It was more made more striking by its ordinariness: a standard-issue Council desk with a signing book and cheap pen placed neatly in the middle and little yellow booklets strewn about. The foyer of the BasCentre bustled, but the space around the table was poignantly empty. Sitting at the desk, words failed me and I was unsure what to write. Everything seemed trite – a sentiment that couldn’t reflect the sheer horror of the Holocaust, sanitised as it is through the combined filters of years and internet technology and information overload.
Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. Visiting the site I discovered that I was the 34,127th person to light a virtual candle and become part of the Legacy of Hope. Each year, Holocaust Memorial Day (known this year as “HMD2010”) identifies and develops a particular theme:
Holocaust survivors have played an immense role in bringing our attention to the lessons of the Holocaust. They speak of pain and loss, of strength and survival, of despair and their wish for a Legacy of Hope. They encourage us to look within and without, to be sure of our moral compass, to be certain of our choices and to use our voice, whenever we can, to speak out. They have translated difficult experiences to create a future that is free from the dangers of exclusion and persecution. They have passed a message of resilience and hope to the next generation.
Our responsibility is to remember those who were persecuted and murdered, because their lives were wasted. Our challenge is to make the experience and words of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides a meaningful part of our future. The aspirations of those who have suffered from the effects of the Holocaust and of genocide around the world, should inform our lives today. Their words can make us think about our own attitudes, our behaviour, our choices, the way we vote, the way we interact with one another, the way we respect and celebrate the differences between us and the way in which we build a safer future together. It is their example that can inspire us to greater action. We need to ask ourselves what we should be doing today to build a safer, stronger society so that the risk of the building blocks of genocide ever being laid is removed.
As humanitarian activist Hugo Slim says of the voices that speak out of tragedy to our shared sense of humanity: “We need to listen, for a change.”
Remembering is a responsibility on all of us.
It is too easy in this age of instant tragedy, when an earthquake or tsunami can be broadcast into our living room, to forget the sheer brutality we are capable of inflicting on each other as human beings. I saw the legacy of that insane cruelty in my recent work in Sierra Leone. According to the UNDP, Sierra Leone is the third poorest country in the world. I saw single, double, triple and quadruple amputees attempting to rebuild and live their lives alongside those who had perpetrated their agonies upon them in a vicious civil war.
The Holocaust is the ultimate manifestation of that evil that drives man to brutalise man.
To be honest, I struggle to get my head around the figures involved. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi killing camp, murdering approximately 1,100,000 men, women and children. In total, 6,000,000 Jews were murdered (almost two out of every three Jews in Europe), alongside 200,000 Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) and almost 250,000 mentally or physically disabled people. Tens of thousands of gay men and women, Jehovah’s Witnesses, intellectuals and political opponents were also murdered. They are the sort of stratospheric figures that become meaningless – and in that meaninglessness lies incredible danger.
Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us that genocide is not a thing of the past:
Genocide is with us today. It is another inconvenient truth that, in its hopeless enormity and our helpless inadequacy, we push uncomfortably from our minds.
In Nuremberg, in Bavaria, the city closest to the village where I spent my first few years growing up, part of the monstrous unfinished remains of the Nazi Party’s Congress Hall (Kongresskalle) has been transformed into a museum of brutal truth: the The Documentation Center Nazi Party Rallying Grounds (Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände). I have visited it three times and it has never failed to move me to tears. It tells the story of the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich, the Holocaust, liberation and the Nuremberg trials. It does not flinch in admitting the culpability of the German nation in the Holocaust. It is a harrowing experience – but one that begins to make a dent in the inconceivability of such horror. Importantly, the centre serves as a reminder of the hatred and evil that was spawned in ordinary men and women on that very site.
It demonstrates, in terrifyingly precise detail, the truth in that phrase coined by Hannah Arendt: “The banality of evil”. (Her premise was, essentially, that it is ordinary people -not monsters – who are responsible for the greatest acts of evil in history. They accept what they are told by the state and so participate in even extreme acts because it is normal to do so.)
“First they came…” may be a poem that has become mired in controversy over its origins. However, whether they are the words of the Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller or not, they contain a simple and uncomfortable truth about our preparedness to speak out in circumstances of right and wrong that we should all reflect upon. Read them again and think about them – not with the eyes of knowing, ironic commentators who might claim these words are the refuge of the lazy and clichéd, but as if you’re seeing them for the first time:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
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 out.”