Joan Ryan
Joan Ryan

Marching against the peril of indifference

This week, I am visiting Poland on a three day trip as part in March of the Living.

It provides a unique opportunity for young people from all over the world to mark Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, by marching from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest concentration camp complex built during the Second World War.

We were joined on our journey by survivors from the Shoah as we remembered all those murdered in this, the darkest hour in human history.

It provided the chance for all of us to reflect on lives that were cut tragically short, dreams which went unfulfilled; and the sheer depravity of this attempt to wipe a whole people and their memory from the face of the earth.

But we also did something else: we celebrated life, in particular those who survived the Holocaust.

Before departing London, I read some of their remarkable stories. Stories of tragedy and loss, but also of bravery, love, and the endurance of the human spirit.

Three, in particular, stood out. Freddie Knoller fought in the French resistance but, when captured, chose to confess that he was Jewish rather than denounce his comrades.

Sabina Miller’s experience fired a determination to raise her voice against hate wherever and whenever she encountered it. Until she passed away last month, Sabina dedicated her time to sharing her story, stressing the importance of tolerance, understanding and kindness.

And Eve Kugler, who joined us this week and wrote after the war, “We started again with nothing except the Jewish beliefs and values that the Nazis could never take from us.”

We also had the chance to celebrate the lives of those Righteous who fulfilled the Talmudic injunction that to save one life is to save the entire world.

“Even in the darkness of the Holocaust,” the late Martin Gilbert wrote in his wonderful account of their story, “there were sparks of light”.

But the stories of Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and our own Frank Foley are not just those of many individual acts of courage and rescue, but a reminder, as Gilbert suggested, of “what human beings are capable of doing – for the good – when the challenge is greatest and the dangers most pressing”.

Our journey also gave us the opportunity to celebrate the life of the Jewish people’s homeland, which was reborn in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

As we prepare to celebrate its 70th anniversary next month, it seemed fitting to recall the contribution of the survivors to the state of Israel and all that many of us admire so much about it: its achievements, its values and its resilience.

But remembrance and celebration alone are not enough. To truly honour those who died in the Holocaust – and those who risked all to save the lives of others – we must also learn from it.

Antisemitism remains one of the great scourges of the modern world. It is all-too-present in many parts of the Middle East, where hatred of Israel is expressed using the most vile antisemitic tropes, very often officially sanctioned.

But, shockingly, the most ancient of hatreds is alive and well, too, on the continent where mass extermination took place just seven decades ago.

We see it in Poland, where some seek to make political capital by denying the historical truth that the Holocaust was aided and abetted by Hitler’s willing executioners in occupied countries.

We see it in Hungary where right-wing populists spin repugnant conspiracy theories about philanthropists such as George Soros simply because they disagree with his support for progressive causes.

And, of course, we see it in Britain, where only last month British Jews were forced to organise a protest in Parliament Square to protest against antisemitism in the Labour party; where those who seek to boycott the world’s only Jewish state make pernicious comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany or apartheid-era South Africa; and where those who wish to hold events on campuses supporting Israel are routinely harassed and intimidated.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once described the 20th century as “the most terrible in western history” and we must always remember that the Holocaust was a uniquely evil event.

I believe that its most important lesson was that taught by the late Elie Wiesel: the peril of indifference.

Twenty-five years ago this month, he called out the west’s inaction in the face of the terrible crimes being committed in the Bosnian civil war; a conflict about which the former US Secretary of State, James Baker, had shamefully suggested: “We don’t have a dog in that fight.”

“Something, anything must be done,” he famously pleaded at the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 25 years ago this month.
Those words are particularly timely as we consider the plight of the people of Syria, where an estimated 400,000 people have been killed, 5.5 million have fled the country and 6.1 million are internally displaced.

Elie Wiesel’s words as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize contained a power injunction to act:

“ We must always take sides.

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.

Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

Sometimes we must interfere.”

Standing in the bloodlands of Eastern Europe, that call never seemed more apt.

About the Author
Joan Ryan MP is parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel.
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