Of all the horrific aspects of the Holocaust, I always think the speed with which it came about is one of the most terrifying. In 1931, would any German – Jew or non-Jew – have thought that within 10 short years there would be ghettoes overflowing with Jews, concentration camps constructed and operational, and murder happening on an industrial scale across swathes of Europe, with millions of Jews already killed in ghettoes, camps and forests?
The conditions that allowed this abomination to take place meant a cultural and legal embedding of latent (and sometimes, not so hidden) anti-Semitism on a vast scale. Propaganda was deliberately used across every sphere of life – children’s toys, school books, posters in shop windows, newspaper articles and so on – and targeted carefully in differentiated ways at children, young people and adults.
Words were used purposefully to stereotype, foster division, whip up prejudice and, ultimately, to persecute. Without a cultural acceptance of the language and ideas used in these ways and the normalisation of separation and discrimination, the later steps that led to the Holocaust could never have taken place.
Of course, words can also be used to achieve the opposite effect: to bring people together, to heal division and to challenge doctrines of bigotry and prejudice.
We have inspiring examples from history. During the Holocaust, the White Rose group in Munich resisted the Nazis by challenging their ideology and disseminating thousands of leaflets and posters, motivating students in Hamburg, Freiberg, Berlin and Vienna to do the same.
We have also seen how words were used to provide evidence. The Oneg Shabbat archives accumulated milk churns full of written evidence of life in the ghetto: diaries and notes, newspapers, articles, letters and more.
Today we are privileged to hear words of testimony from survivors of the Holocaust and from subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Some are able to do this in person, meeting and addressing hundreds of people. Others, such as Denise Affonço, survivor of the genocide in Cambodia, and Halima Bashir, survivor of the genocide in Darfur, have written their memoirs.
This year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is ‘The power of words’. We chose this so that we can reflect on how significant and influential words have been in the past – to destroy, to resist, to witness and to bring people together. Today, words are no less important and, with social media, can reach more people and in greater volume than ever before.
Sometimes, words are used without fully realising the consequences caused – but on many occasions this hurt and offence is precisely the outcome sought. Yet at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust we know that hundreds of thousands of people across the country reject the language of division, and want to come together to commemorate the past, and do more to create a safer, better world.
We anticipate approximately 8,000 local activities across the UK to mark HMD this year – an astonishing number of events each bringing together people in schools, communities and organisations in every corner of the country.
Find your local event or raise awareness of HMD with your friends and colleagues by sharing our articles and films – you can use your social media posts to spread positive messages and information.
Every Holocaust Memorial Day event makes a difference. We reflect for a purpose: to learn about the past so we can create a safer, better world. We learn more, empathise more, and do more.
And this year, as we post on social media and talk to our friends and colleagues, we will all be thinking of ways we can use our own language constructively and responsibly.
Remember how powerful your words are.