This Friday marks Holocaust Memorial Day, a day to remember the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under the Nazi persecution of their social and political enemies. It also serves as a reminder of more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and Bosnia.
This sombre day falls on the 27th of January, the day in 1945 when the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. The Nazis had scrambled to cover-up the evidence of their crimes, but the on the 27th the scale soon became apparent. Forty-four thousand pairs of shoes were found in a warehouse, along with 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 articles of women’s clothing, and 7.7 tons of human hair.
9,000 prisoners had been left at Auschwitz, too ill to be moved by the retreating Nazi forces. “I remember their faces, especially their eyes which betrayed their ordeal” one former Soviet Soldier would later say of the moment of liberation.
By the time Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, two thirds of the entire European population had been murdered.
It may seem difficult for us in Tameside, in 2023, to grasp the enormity and horror of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
However, it’s important to reflect that in Britain at the time, the Holocaust also seemed unimaginable. In 1942, when Anthony Eden informed the House of Commons of the ‘appalling horror and brutality’ being done to Jewish people, the House was stunned, and stood in a moment of spontaneous silence to express its disgust at the atrocities being committed.
The motto of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is ‘learning from genocide – for a better future’, which I think speaks to the dual-purpose of the day. The 27thof January gives us an opportunity remember those who have been killed, and honour survivors and those who had their lives completed upended because of unyielding persecution.
But Holocaust Memorial Day also reminds us that we too must stand against hate, religious persecution, and oppression. We have to look at our own world and relentlessly oppose the atrocities are still being committed today. We must learn from the darkest days of our history and build a better future.
Human beings are capable of extreme evil, but also of extraordinary love and compassion. Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us that the values we hold dear – love, kindness, tolerance, freedom – cannot be taken for granted, and must be protected.