Holocaust Memorial Day is a poignant opportunity for people around the globe to reflect on the devastating events of the Holocaust, and the genocides that have taken place across the world since.
As the number of survivors still with us sadly continues to fall, it becomes more important than ever to keep the memory of what they experienced, and their amazing stories alive.
Every one of those murdered by the Nazis, and in subsequent genocides perpetrated by Hutu extremists in Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and others, was a human being with family, friends, a personality and a past, as well as hopes and dreams for the future – who has since risked becoming just a number.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “Stand Together”, exploring how genocidal regimes throughout history have deliberately fractured societies by marginalising certain groups, and how these tactics can be challenged by individuals standing together with their neighbours, and speaking out against oppression.
Historians have sought for decades to explain how the atrocities committed by the Nazis could ever have happened.
Pre-Nazi Germany was a democratic state and one of the world’s most economically advanced and educated countries, with no recent history of state-sponsored brutality. How could that possibly have led to Hitler and the Holocaust in such a short space of time?
It was my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2016, along with 200 school students from the North East as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust charity’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project that drove home to me one of the most important lessons to be learnt from one of the very darkest periods in human history: that seeking to differentiate and dehumanise others is how the process of genocide starts.
We’ve all asked ourselves what we would have done if we’d lived in Germany in the 1930s.
We all like to think that we would have been brave, that we wouldn’t have stood by and let what happened unfold. But would we?
I’m reminded of the poem “First they came…” which was first written in German in 1946 by the Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller:
“First 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.”
If there is one lesson to be learnt from history, it is surely that remaining silent in the face of prejudice and hatred as it unfolds emboldens those who perpetrate it and allows the poison to spread.
In 21st century Britain, the troubling reality is that many British Jews see anti-Semitism creeping back into everyday life.
The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released its second landmark survey on antisemitism in December 2018. In the UK, the survey found that three-quarters of self-identified Jews think antisemitism is a “very big” or “fairly big” problem. In 2012, less than half had thought it was. This is deeply worrying.
One small way I’m trying to help is by taking on the Chair of Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group against antisemitism, which re-formed last week, alongside my Conservative colleague Andrew Percy.
We’ll be working with the Law Commission to ensure laws against hate crime are as effective as they can be. We’ll be marshalling MPS to ensure the forthcoming Online Harms Bill is as strong as it can be given the viciousness of anti-Jewish racism on the internet. We plan to highlight and seek better understanding of antisemitism on the far-left and far-right. We’ll be working with the Jewish community to understand what more we need to do and will continue to educate all about antisemitic discourse and our responsibility to stand together with the Jewish community against racism.
Holocaust Memorial Day this year is about standing together. We can choose to keep quiet – or we can each make a difference – even if to just one person’s life – by refusing to accept racism when we see it and by supporting those affected.
Because tweeting your support, signing a Book of Commitment, speaking at events and sitting on All-Party Groups are only worth it if we are truly prepared to stand together – and make sure it really means something.