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Why it is vital we understand the Holocaust

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The following was published in the Yorkshire Post

One of the targets during the terrorist outrages in Paris was a kosher supermarket where four people were murdered because they were Jewish. Set against a rising tide of anti-Semitism it will no doubt increase the numbers of French Jews who no longer feel safe and leave for Israel. In Britain Jewish people also reportedly feel fearful, leading the Home Secretary to speak out about the issue.

Throughout their history the Jews have been persecuted for who they are. I recently had the opportunity to examine in some depth the issues around the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, the Israeli national Holocaust memorial museum, whilst attending the International School for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem.

The group I was part of included representatives from the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the House of Lords, a senior civil servant working on community integration and a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Trust (UK). The Council of Christians and Jews had organised the visit in an effort to increase knowledge and understanding of this important issue.

The Holocaust is a complex issue - we think we know what happened. But the truth is that our views are often shaped by films and TV, and we are usually content with knowing the headlines. We know about the wholesale forced movement of people to concentration camps, amongst them Auschwitz, and believe that many were kept alive for some time as forced labour. But in the end the camps were just killing factories, quickly or slowly it mattered not to the Nazis.

We know that 6 million people died and we have heard the stories of the survivors, and even testimonies of those who were part of the killing machine. Yet those who survived were a tiny minority. Most of the stories about the Holocaust cannot be told because the majority of those deported were shot or gassed within a short time of arriving at a camp.

Among the victims were 1.5 million children, lives ended before they had really begun. The vast majority would have been killed straightaway, not being suitable for work. The children’s memorial at Yad Vashem is a simple building in which the flames of five candles are reflected - hundreds and hundreds of small flames shining in the dark.

At the International School we heard about the development of the final solution, and how it is still not clear that the complete eradication of the Jews was what was intended at the outset. Adolf Hitler did not write much down on this issue, or give orders which were recorded. It meant that those working for him were left to interpret his views and work towards what they thought were his intentions. 

Those working at Yad Vashem are very conscious that the small numbers of Holocaust survivors won’t be around much longer, and every effort is being made to ensure that their testimonies are not lost. The museum also continues to seek documents from the period, and even today items arrive, some in a very poor state.  We saw ongoing conservation work on diaries and letters.

The museum is putting the information and items that they have in their collection on-line. A massive digitalisation project is ongoing, with over a million items being scanned every year. They expect to complete the project in about 5 years’ time. 

One of the important roles of the museum is to collect the names of the dead and each year they receive information from friends and relatives. To date the names of over 4 million are recorded. The files are kept in one room with a display of photographs of some of those who died. It is both a minimal but essential part of the memorial.

Like most people faced with the sheer enormity of the Holocaust I found myself looking for hope. Yet for the 6 million murdered there was no hope. The Nazis did not succeed in eradicating all Jews in Europe, but a substantial part of the Jewish population was exterminated - a culture, a way of life including languages largely wiped out.

Yet while there is no hope to be taken from the story, there is comfort in the around 24,000 people who were themselves not Jewish, but who risked their life to help Jewish people. They are designated by Yad Vashem as Righteous People.

The fact of the Holocaust also gives us an obligation to try and prevent genocide. Since the end of the Second World War we have had other genocides - for some the international community failed to live up to that obligation, and for others there has been intervention aimed at preventing or limiting mass murder.

At the end of a short but intensive time at Yad Vashem I came away wanting to read more, to try and understand more. The Holocaust happened over 70 years ago, but viewing people as different and less than human because of their race, as these last few weeks have shown, is still present. It isn’t always easy to know what to do, and sometimes how to do it, but if our common humanity means anything it must mean that we cannot stand by and do nothing.

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