Holocaust Memorial Day: why we must learn from the past – now more than ever

By Sandrine Wyrich (@SunnyWyrich_)

On 27 January 1945 seven thousand prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most infamous German Nazi concentration camp of them all. Today, 76 years on, the world commemorates the Holocaust, its victims and those who suffered in other genocides.

This state-sponsored slaughter stands out as a reminder of human capacity for unspeakable cruelty. Dr Rachel Century, head of research at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), explains that we must remember this episode of horror:

“By commemorating and sharing experiences of victims and survivors, we can honour them and try to learn from the past to ultimately prevent other identity-based violence from happening.”

For this reason, Holocaust Memorial Day is held annually. Dr Paula Cowan, Holocaust educator at UWS, underlines that in the post-truth era awareness is more important than ever before:

“We can see in our face-to-face reality lives and our virtual social media lives an increase of Holocaust denial and distortion. If people don’t know what it is, they can’t respond to the mistruths.”

Sign up for HMDT’s 2021 virtual Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony and join Light in the Darkness.

But research shows a disturbing ignorance about the greatest crime of the 20th century. A 2020 study found that two-thirds of young American adults don’t know that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust and more than one in 10 believes Jews caused the Holocaust.

Similarly, HMDT discovered that one in 20 British adults does not believe the Holocaust really happened and surveys in other European nations have produced similar outcomes.

Apart from a harrowing oblivion of the traumatic effects for individuals, Dr Century argues there is a tragic failure to learn:

“After the Holocaust the international community adopted a legal definition of the crime of genocide. They did that to make sure never again would these crimes be allowed to happen.”

But yet they did. Millions of lives were destroyed in genocides that followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

“The subsequent genocides represent a failure of humanity to learn from the Holocaust,” she continues. “And they are a reminder that we must be prepared to guard against genocide in the future.”

Dr Century emphasises how important listening to witnesses’ stories is in research and recommends to pause and reflect on what they have to tell. HMDT collected a number of witnesses’ life stories.

Times columnist David Aaronovitch fittingly wrote: “we can never be sure we’d be the good guys”. The Holocaust was led by the country of Beethoven and the country of Freud. Both countries considered themselves leaders in civilisation and culture. Yet both descended to ultimate evil.

If history teaches us anything, Dr Century argues it is that civilisation is fragile and how marginalising particular groups becomes a licence to murder:

“What is clear is that while all the genocides are unique in their own right, there are patterns. The process that leads to genocide is similar.”

Hostility based on identity has not gone away, one only has to look at the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China or Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Holocaust survivor Ivor Perl BEM shares a sobering assessment of the 76 years since the Auschwitz liberation:

“Justice to me would be if people would have learned a lesson from history and proof to show that people have learned. But I’m afraid, looking around the world today, I wonder if there has been much learned.”

When racism and discrimination remain unchallenged, they become normalised and can generate an environment for genocide.

Hasan Hasanović, who survived the Bosnia genocide, recalls that “after the Holocaust the world said never again and yet we had more genocides and places, right now, on the brink of genocide.

“We must never rest until such ideological hatreds are completely eliminated from human hearts.”

Dr Cowan believes it is “good for each and every one of us to learn something new about the Holocaust and subsequent genocides”. She explains why we must continue to research and educate.

Education may not be a panacea, but Dr Cowan believes “it is very impactful on young people. Impactful in terms of what they want to do and the type of person they want to be.”

Holocaust Memorial Day is a time to remember, but commemorating alone is not enough.

“You can only remember things that you know about. If you don’t actually know about them very well, there is not much point in coming together to remember them because it hasn’t got much meaning,” stresses Dr Cowan.

Organisations like the Holocaust Educational Trust have been founded with the mission to educate about the Holocaust and its contemporary relevance.

Today, it is critical that the brutal truth of the Holocaust is not dimmed. By reminding ourselves of the worst that human beings can do to each other, we must seek to challenge intolerance and prevent future atrocities.

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