Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Remembering Holocaust Memorial Day

Today various events across the UK mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

From Lewis to Cornwall, thousands of people will remember the estimated eleven million victims of the Nazis’ systematic and brutal killing machine – as well as those who have been killed in subsequent genocides.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will attend a Holocaust Memorial Day service this evening at Ayr Town Hall, just one of many gatherings which aims to honour those who died while reflecting on the effects of intolerance, discrimination and hatred.

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27th January annually to recall the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death camps. We recall the “Final Solution”, a chillingly well co-ordinated liquidation of a race of people in which an estimated six million Jewish men women and children lost their lives. We also remember the relentless persecution and anti-Semitic legislation which, from 1933, denied many of the most basic human rights to Jews and essentially sought to strip them of their humanity.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2015 is “Keep the memory alive”. In remembering honestly, we must reflect on the suffering of Europe’s Jews at one of the darkest times in modern history. But we also should remember the five million other non-Jewish Holocaust victims who died at the hands of the Nazis, and the countless others who personally experienced oppression and exclusion simply because of who they were. These include political opponents (e.g. Communists and Social Democrats), disabled people, Romany gypsies, Poles, people with mental health problems, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian priests such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe, twins (Dr Josef Mengele required them for his “research”) and, inevitably, gay people.

Indeed, the Nazi quest to exterminate gay people was as organised and thorough as the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. Peter Tatchell explains at length in a thoughtful, and sometime harrowing, contribution for the Huffington Post the consequences of being gay in Nazi Germany. Like the approach to Jews, the process of persecution began with homophobic legislation and a deliberate cultivating of intolerance towards a particular section of society. This in turn led to homosexual orientation becoming an arrestable offence in itself, the propagation of pseudo-scientific gay “cures”, gay people being classified as “inferiors” and – ultimately and horrifyingly – the mass murder of homosexual people in a warped quest to reserve the genetic purification of the German people.

The words of Heinrich Himmler leave little room for doubt as to the Nazi’s plans: "We must exterminate [homosexuals] root and branch... We can't permit such danger to the country; the homosexual must be entirely eliminated." The systematic elimination of gay people was so thorough that very few survived to tell of their ordeals.

The Holocaust casts a long shadow over Jewish history, but also over that of Europe’s LGBTI communities. Remembrance is not the preserve or responsibility of one group of people but of all society – when one of us is demeaned and dehumanised so too are all of us. The scale of the Holocaust must never be forgotten, but neither too should its origins. We must remember how certain groups were classified, symbolised as “different” – becoming objects of hatred – and systematically dehumanised, their fundamental rights as human beings being denied. The lessons of the Holocaust are as relevant today as ever: legitimisation of discrimination and the divisive language of “us” and “them” have been at the root of every genocide in history.

I have some personal interest in the Holocaust. My maternal grandfather was a Polish Jew who fought in the RAF during World War II. He left his family behind, and saw none of them again. We can only guess what possible fates befell them, although it seems more than probable they ended their lives in Auschwitz. My stepfather’s father was a member of the Allied force that liberated Bergen-Belsen. They had quite different experiences, but neither was able to talk about them openly. Each lived with their unspeakable memories of the horrors they had witnessed, or of loved ones they knew to be lost.

It is not only the Nazi atrocities that are remembered at this time, but also the many genocides that have taken place since – in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. As well as the victims, we remember those who were heroes for peace – the often unsung people who did so much to relieve human suffering during wither the Holocaust or more recent genocides: people such as Donald Caskie (a Church of Scotland minister who was “straight at home and gay abroad”), Raoul Wallenberg, Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou, Irena Sendler and David Ndaruhutse are just a few of those who denounced philosophies of discrimination and resisted oppression.

As a bisexual person of Jewish descent Holocaust Memorial Day has a specific and profound personal significance. But it also has importance to wider society, as we remember what has gone before and accept the challenge of confronting hate and creating a safer, more tolerant and inclusive future.

In remembering the Holocaust honestly, we should not be considering banning Mein Kampf (as one Labour MP is suggesting) but improving education. Mein Kampf and its philosophy should instead be confronted and exposed for what they are – the 90-year old ramblings of a self-deluded megalomaniac who delivered untold suffering to millions of people.  We need such examples from history to actively demonstrate where intolerance leads.

Fortunately, the Holocaust Memorial Trust is committed not to banning what helps us understand the past, but to using the experiences of the past to challenge how we live in the present and demonstrating how we can all contribute to a better tomorrow – one in which all differences are not only accepted but respected.

Further information on Holocaust Memorial Day events can be found on the Trust's website.

This piece was originally written for KaleidoScot.

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