The recent ITV documentary ‘Return to Belsen’ was a fitting commemoration for the thousands of Jews, and others, who died in the camp in the most atrocious conditions, both before and tragically even after liberation. The survivor testimonies were harrowing and heartbreaking as they looked back 75 years on the time they lived in hell. But although this kind of reflection on the past is hugely important, it is not enough – it’s time we take a look at commemoration and how, moving forwards, we need to do it better.
As we know too well, survivors are now few and they are frail. Many are committed to sharing their experiences and wish to keep doing so. However, they will not be able to endlessly re-live the experiences of their youth in their twilight years, never mind tour the thousands of schools and ceremonies where their testimony makes the most palpable and engaging impact. Over coming years, there may be more who wish to live their lives in peace. We should allow them to do this, and be grateful to them for their service to the Jewish and wider community. But what does that mean for commemoration?
We commemorate for many reasons; firstly, to honour both those who were murdered and the survivors; secondly, to remember what happened and finally, to learn for the future. Commemoration without learning is inadequate – particularly in a world where hatred is on the rise and conspiracy theories of all kinds spread like wildfire on social media. Already, dangerous theories about the current pandemic are circulating online – and we can only guess which minority group will be accused in the next conspiracy.
The use of artefacts, films, stories and second-generation testimony (the testimony of survivors’ children), along with easily digestible facts will need to complement, and ultimately replace, live testimony in our commemorations – and this needs careful planning and creative thought.
Commemoration is not straightforward. In ‘Return to Belsen’, Jonathan Dimbleby, for example, didn’t mention that his father’s broadcast to the world on liberation in 1945 failed to say that the inmates were Jews. Also in the programme Ian Forsyth, one of the British army liberators, spoke with extraordinary passion and care, in the way that he did at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s central London commemoration in January, leaving no doubt of the heroic role of the British in liberation. But what was not considered is whether the British armed forces and the British Government could have done more and earlier, nor whether the liberation of Bergen-Belsen was one of their aims, or whether they just happened upon the camp.
If we are to learn from commemoration, we also need to consider that Bergen-Belsen is just one of many horrific acts one group of people inflicted on another. Suffering, identify-based violence and genocide did not end in 1945. For young people in particular, to understand the ongoing dangers of intolerance, prejudice and hatred, we need to help them link it to more recent atrocities and ongoing challenges such as the commemoration of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, which took place last week. By also learning about more recent and even ongoing situations like the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China today, commemorating the Holocaust may be more powerful and serve a more effective educational role.
Finally, as we enter a post survivor era, we need two things: a permanent commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust, and an ongoing annual commitment to mark Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK. The memorial must be a place where we can honour those who were murdered, but also where these more complex issues can be addressed, making the conversation broader (not limited to the Holocaust), contemporary, relevant and impactful. Antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, homophobia and all the other hatreds seemingly prove easy options for people who are lost, who need someone to blame and who are in crisis. With our world facing catastrophe beyond most of our wildest dreams, we must use commemoration of Bergen-Belsen to ask some of these profound and difficult questions as well as, of course, to honour the 6 million lost Jewish souls.