70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and 20 years after the genocide in Bosnia, we should never, writes Jemma Wayne, forget the lessons of the past.
On the one hand, it seems a little self-absorbed to bang on about a tragedy that occurred 70 years ago when there are countless atrocities happening right now, every day, almost everywhere. A part of me understands that slight glazing over in the eyes when the Holocaust is used as a reason or explanation. Why sidetrack our attention from the present to indulge the past?
But, today’s Holocaust Memorial Day specifically, and remembrance in general, are, in fact, vital safeguards and directives for the present, a crucial reminder of what the world once promised to never let happen again.
Of course, the world failed. 2015 marks not only 70 years since the Holocaust, but also the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia. Last April, we commemorated two decades since Rwanda’s tragedy. And today, we need only look to Darfur or Syria to see further devastation. Humanity has not learned. We still possess that same madness.
For the Jewish communities of Europe, this realisation has never been more salient. The January murders in the Paris kosher deli are, perhaps, the most shocking but only the latest escalation in a surge of anti-Semitism: words, both in print and in person; vandalism; desecration; physical violence. And, most worrying, a normalisation of all of the above. Israel’s conflict with Gaza last summer seemed to allow and justify an explosion of energetic and overt anti-Semitism under the flimsy guise of anti-Israel sentiment (this itself, a complicated and troublesome zeitgeist). Europe’s Jews are now, in sincerity, discussing their safety, worrying about it, considering exodus.
A few months ago, I found myself seated next to a Holocaust survivor at a fundraising dinner for the Holocaust Education Trust. Aged 94, my dinner partner had been a young woman when she lost almost all of her once vibrant family to the Nazis. I asked how she felt about these recent European rumblings, hoping she would dismiss them as nothing, that they still seemed a far cry from those first warning signs it is hard to believe the Jews of 1930s Europe could have missed. But, instead, she reiterated how, back in 1939, they never would have imagined the violence of the Holocaust, they never dreamed anything would happen to them. Then she showed me the number tattooed onto her forearm. She told me about Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. About having humanity stripped away. And how, when she was finally liberated and came to Britain, she felt she was coming from hell to heaven. How things have since changed.
Yet, despite the concerning recent spate of abuse, in 2015 Europe there is at least an awareness of it, a growing alertness to the danger. Perhaps it is too small, too passive, but at least for some Je Suis Juif followed Je Suis Charlie.
And the core of this responsiveness is remembrance. Remembering the mistakes we made, remembering how quickly words can lead to actions, remembering that an assault on goods can become an assault on lives and that the suppression of ideas can morph into total extermination.
Holocaust survivors have been pivotal in spreading this message. They have given their testimony: to schoolchildren, to journalists, to museums. But this anniversary is, perhaps, the last big one in which a large number of survivors will remain. In light of this, an app, 70 Voices: Victims, Perpetrators and Bystanders (available to download for free on both Apple and Android phones), has been developed by the Holocaust Educational Trust, sharing first-hand stories in an attempt to reach those who may not have heard them. Urging people to listen. To remember. To be warned.
Because, while this day of remembrance may be most poignant for those families who have been touched by genocide, in truth it is not only Jewish communities who are scared. For many, the world feels in free-fall. IS and other fanatical groups are a new brand of enemy who unlike in previous times of war, or cold war, cannot be identified in a conventional way. We cannot point to them, or locate them, or contain them. We cannot rely on their reason because they do not play by reasonable rules. We cannot trust them to act with rationale. And they are everywhere, their evil insidious, seemingly arbitrary and grown often from within. Moreover while they may attack Jews specifically, this is only insofar as Jews represent the apex of the capitalist, heathen ‘West’ (ironic given how many ‘Westerners’ hate Jews too), so this time there is no option to stand back, to say nothing, to let others be taken.
If there is a silver lining to this chaotic war then it is this: the only way to fight such an enemy is together. To remember, to educate and to stand up, together. Je Suis Charlie, Je Suis Juif, and Je suis Musulman too. Because, as we remember the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, it should be noted that from Germany to Bosnia to Rwanda to Cambodia, none of these atrocities were carried out by Muslims. And reacting to the extremism of groups such as IS by inciting or allowing prejudice against Muslims only serves to reignite the cycle of intolerance and bigotry that has lead us to this day.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is memory. Let ours be true. Let us see today that it is only through learning from the past that we can hope for a better future. Let us engage the disengaged, win back the disaffected, refuse to scapegoat and fight those very first signs of prejudice and intolerance, wherever they may occur.
Jemma Wayne is a playwright, journalist, and the author of After Before, a novel about betrayal and forgiveness rooted in part in the Rwandan genocide.