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Reflecting on Holocaust Memorial Day

Reflecting on Holocaust Memorial Day
General News Senior School

Headmaster's Senior School Assembly to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2023

Last Friday, 27th January, was Holocaust Memorial Day, a hugely important global commemoration of the day in 1945 when Allied troops towards the end of World War 2 liberated the concentration camp at Auschwitz, in German occupied Poland. Auschwitz was the largest and deadliest of the dedicated extermination camps set up by the Nazis, and it is estimated that around 1.1 million people died there. Of the 6 million Jews known to have been murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust, nearly a million lost their lives at Auschwitz, most of them gassed to death in industrial scale chambers.

Each year, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust seeks to shed new light on and to highlight through different perspectives the compass and legacy of these unfathomable atrocities. This year, they took as their theme the role in the Holocaust played by ‘ordinary people’. You may have seen this focus on the news at, amongst other places, Piccadilly Circus in London, where the famous electronic billboards told the stories of both ordinary and extraordinary people. 

The premise and context of this theme is that, to quote from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust: “Genocide is facilitated by ordinary people.” They go on to explain: “Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group. Ordinary people were involved in all aspects of the Holocaust. Ordinary people were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses – and ordinary people were victims. Ordinary people were the ones who made brave decisions to rescue, to hide or stand up. But ordinary people also made decisions to ignore what was going on around them and to allow the genocide to continue.”

Holocaust survivor, Martin Stern recalls: “As a five year old, I could stand at the edge of the clearing where the trains were being loaded. People, like sardines, in those wooden trucks. And the people loading them in – they were railway men; they didn’t look terribly different from the railway men who check my tickets these days – they looked like ordinary people.”

Zigi Shipper was taken as a child with his grandmother to Auschwitz, before being transferred as a teenager to Stutthof, near Gdansk. About the concentration camp guards whom he encountered each day for two years, he had the following to say: “They were doctors, lawyers, engineers that were doing it, and then they went home in the evening and sat down with their wives and children, eating their dinner and listening to music, knowing what they had done during the day time.”

Zigi’s wider testimony and reflections are tough to listen to, upsetting even, but it is very important that his words are heard, all the more so for reasons that I will touch upon after we have watched this short interview that he gave a few years ago:

When we think of the chief architects, propagators and perpetrators of the Holocaust – Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Heydrich – we imagine monsters whose capacity for evil is so profoundly shocking that it lies beyond our comprehension. And yet, as Martin Stern and Zigi Shipper reflect, those who allowed this evil to take hold – those who allowed the Holocaust to take place – were ‘ordinary people’ who stood by, assisted, just ‘did what they were told to do’: the train drivers transporting the victims, the police officers rounding them up, the doctors and dentists carrying out selections, the secretaries typing up the records.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, ‘ordinary’ Germans would have encountered anti-Semitic propaganda on a regular basis. Below is a street poster run by the Nazi newspaper, Der Stürmer, repeating the phrase popularised by the anti-Semitic 19th century German historian, Heinrich von Treitschke. It says: ‘Die Juden sind unser Unglück’, which translates as ‘The Jews are our misfortune.’ I wonder how many ‘ordinary people’ walking past that poster called out the headline as the risibly untrue statement that it was?

Another propaganda poster (below) reinforces antisemitic stereotypes and Nazi tropes by depicting a Jewish man with a large nose cowering fearfully. His clothing is meant to imply that he is obscenely wealthy, whilst a hand points accusingly at him, stating “Der ist schuld am Kriege! (He is to blame for the war!)”, reinforcing the Nazi promoted lie that Germany lost the First World War due to sabotage by German Jewish soldiers. I wonder how many ‘ordinary people’ challenged that lie. Similarly here is a poster (also below) promoting the 1940 film Der ewige Jude (‘The Eternal Jew’). Presented as a pseudo-documentary, it included crude, vile characterizations of Jews as alien in nature, with one of the film’s most notorious sequences comparing them to rats that carry contagion. Again, I wonder how many ‘ordinary people’ denounced this film as a twisted and manipulative piece of state sponsored propaganda? I think that the answer to all of those questions is obvious: not enough. Not enough people stood up to the lies, the propaganda, the bullying that became violence, the violence that became persecution and the persecution that sought to become annihilation.

We often ask the question, ‘What lessons can we learn from the past?’ and that question doesn’t get any bigger than when it relates to the Holocaust. Fundamentally, of course, the fervent hope is that humanity will learn what it must learn to ensure that this can never ever happen again, but the fact is that genocide has continued to take place in different parts of the world since 1945: in Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan and Bosnia, to name just some. The United Nations defines genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” You might think that such a landscape is a long way removed from the world in which you live, but everything starts somewhere, and we can all play our part in helping to set a tone that embraces tolerance, compassion and understanding, rather than hate and division. As we have seen this morning, the Holocaust started with words, with lies, with propaganda, and it was facilitated in part because ordinary people were unwilling or felt unable to question or to challenge this and to speak out amongst their peers. When we hear or see language used to insult somebody on the basis of their race or ethnicity, their faith or their culture, then we must speak out; it’s not ok. When someone’s gender or identity or sexual orientation becomes the focus of their abuse by others, then this must be challenged; it’s not ok. Everybody should have the right to live their lives unencumbered by prejudice and without fear of being picked on simply because of who they are; this is the responsibility of all of us.

Long into old age, Zigi Shipper warned of the destructive power of hatred and of how indifference and inaction can help that dark force to grow. “There is nothing we can do about the past,” he once said, “but we can do a lot about the present and the future, and it’s up to young people, the most important people in the world.” One of an ever decreasing number of survivors who bore witness to the Holocaust, Zigi Shipper died two weeks ago, peacefully, on his 93rd birthday. But his spirit, his compassion and defiance, and his message all live on.



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