The horror of the Holocaust is often illustrated by the sobering number of how many innocent people were murdered between 1941 and 1945. But that figure – six million – often lacks the emotional resonance it should evoke, because statistics and figures – without proper context, are just that – statistics and figures.
With this statistic it is almost impossible to comprehend the scale and full effect that the Holocaust had. It is hard to grasp 1,000 murders, victims with their own lives, aspirations, fears and emotions: let alone 6,000,000 people. These individuals are commonly lost in translation from numerical to emotional; and this frankly needs to be corrected.
As a student, we learn about the Holocaust within our history classrooms as part of our curriculum, but not much thought is given to it outside of those classrooms, especially regarding everyday life. This, ultimately, has to change – the Holocaust must be remembered for generations to come as we must not forget those 6,000,000 individuals and who they were as both people and as a community.
To forget effectively achieves Hitler’s aim, as those six million identities cease to exist. Additionally from a present perspective, we must learn from history. As the philosopher George Santayana once said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Santayana’s thought provoking quote proves that we can avoid future mistakes by learning from historical mistakes. Furthermore, it must be remembered that the Holocaust was not the murder of six million people, but six million murders of six million people.
As a young person I feel that the Holocaust is not addressed enough, and the contemporary relevance is evermore prevalent in our increasingly xenophobic and antisemitic society. It’s a common misconception that antisemitism is no longer a great contemporary issue. However, reports from the Community Security Trust show antisemitic incidents have risen by more than a third in the last year. This is at a new record level within the UK: showing a rise of 36%.
It goes to show that the relevance of the Holocaust has never been so important, as there has evidently been a reawakening of antisemitism and hatred towards other communities and religions. The UK is a fairly liberal country, however as statistics show, antisemitism is still in place. This can be seen with examples as recent as Stamford Hill, just weeks ago antisemitic activity hit the heart of Stamford Hill, London; the centre of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community for about 30,000 people.
Furthermore, discriminatory incidents such as this have been heightened by the political landscape of today. The days and week after the Brexit referendum last June, for example, saw a dramatic increase in hate crimes. The Leave campaign, too, regularly engaged in dog-whistle, anti-immigrant tactics to fan the flames of xenophobia and win votes. Nigel Farage even went on to defend his xenophobic ‘breaking point’ poster. Normalising discrimination and bigotry is something we should all want to avoid, because we know how it ends.
As citizens it is our responsibility to uphold tolerance and quash any discrimination that we witness; in letting such actions bypass us we become bystanders to it and in a way advocate such discrimination. In the words of Desmond Tutu, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality’.
Though we cannot reverse the Holocaust, we can learn, remember and grow from it; vowing as free citizens to not let history repeat itself. Additionally solidarity of community, both at a local, national and even international level is imperative for us to eradicate this discrimination. Community holds us together, and with a sense of communal tolerance and acceptance, issues such as antisemitism, homophobia, islamophobia and other forms of discrimination will not exist. Though faced with many tough issues on the international landscape, we must teach our children love, hope and solidarity; not hatred and discrimination – as these are direct causes of genocides like the Holocaust.
Prior to my experiences with the Lessons From Auschwitz programme, I felt helpless regarding the Holocaust and followed the misconception that I could do nothing to help it. However, through the Holocaust Education Trust I have found my voice and sense of spirit that has enabled me to be the change that I want to see in the world.
On Tuesday the 7th of March, I and 180 other students travelled to Poland to witness the camps first hand. A few days before, I was lucky enough to hear survivor Rudi Oppenheimer tell his powerful testimony of his first hand account of his persecution under the Nazis. Whilst visiting Auschwitz Birkenau, Rudi’s testimony particularly stuck with me, as it really began to hit home the complexity and barbaric nature of these camps; and worst of all that those who created these camps of death were humans just like you and me. It is important to remember that the perpetrators were not simply monsters or ‘pure evil’, as this only strips them of such accountability.
But they too, were humans who were once children; and furthermore would go on living with the conscious thought that it was acceptable to do such unspeakable things. Human capability was only emphasised through the ruins of the crematoriums and gas chambers; as it showed that those responsible were fully aware of their monstrosities and were almost ashamed of their actions.
This sole fact echoed in my head throughout the visit. The harrowing and almost unbearable evidence of the Holocaust – shown through the rooms full of hair, kosher crockery, shoes and suitcases, made me reflect on humanity and our possessions that make us individuals. Only here did it occur to me that the Nazi’s did not only kill the Jews physically but also spiritually. As someone who takes great pride in my individuality, this struck a chord in me: hitting me hard with the realisation that this was stripped from over 6 million people – with overwhelming sadness, this unfathomable statistic became ever so more real to me.
With the day drawing to a close I, alongside fellow classmates, began to reflect on the horrific reality that we had witnessed and the humongous scale of camps like Birkenau (with the maximum killing capacity of 6,000 murders a day through the gas chambers).
Though a solemn experience, the visits to the camps and the site of the once standing Great Synagogue, with the accompaniment of Rabbi Shaw, I came to a hopeful conclusion. The day ended with hymn and candles in remembrance of those lost. This for me epitomised the strength of faith and community. Although the Nazi’s tried to eradicate the Jews, they could not strip them of their faith, they could not bury their values and most importantly they could not bury their souls. I left Poland with a new sense of purpose: to help spread the message of the individuals who perished under the Nazi regime internationally, and to prevent this happening in our lifetime, and in our children’s lifetime.
As a teenager of today I may be one of the last to hear a direct testimony from a survivor, but as an Ambassador and citizen I am determined to be their mouthpiece for future years to come. To not only pass this knowledge and re-humanisation to those around me; but to learn myself from the Holocaust and its effects. In some cases, people believe that the Holocaust does not affect them nor concern them – however they could not be more wrong. The Holocaust was vast, consuming and persecuted those from all different walks of life. The Holocaust was international, seeping into every continent on this earth. The Holocaust was on our doorstep. Whilst not only teaching us about humanity as a whole, the Holocaust affects you regardless of your history, as you have the responsibility to stop it happening again.
- Jessica Skellern, Year 12, The Cooper School.