It’s so easy, perhaps natural, to want to turn away from uncomfortable issues but as the Harvard philosopher Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This week, together with the Worcestershire Interfaith Forum, I hosted the annual International Holocaust Memorial Day event at the Guildhall.
The theme of this year’s Memorial Day was the ‘Fragility of Freedom’, summed up by these lines from an entry in Anne Frank’s Diary, reflecting on May 1940 when the Germans arrived in the Netherlands: “That is when the trouble started for the Jews. Our freedom was severely restricted by a series of anti-Jewish decrees.”
This year the keynote speaker was Mr Michael Bibring, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. Michael’s father Harry left Vienna for Britain on the Kindertransport as a 13-year-old, along with his sister. The plan was for their parents to later join them, but that never happened, with his father dying of a heart attack in 1940 and his mother being deported to the death camp at Sobibór in Poland in 1942.
I found Michael to be an inspirational speaker – he laid out very clearly that the Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers, it started with decrees, that Jews had to mark themselves out by wearing a yellow star, that their children had to go to different schools. Over time the decrees went further prohibiting them from using the municipal swimming pool and the imposition of a nighttime curfew, and so on, creating an increasingly intolerable hostile environment that led to the ghettos and once they had the gas chambers ready, the mass murder of the Jews, gay men, gypsies and those with disabilities.
But how did that happen, why did people go along with this? The truth is that those decrees were built on even earlier dehumanising language and ‘othering’. So here is, perhaps an uncomfortable, challenge for all of us. Will you refuse to turn away, will you remember what happened in the Holocaust and will you call out people when you hear them using dehumanising language?