This week, January 27th, we observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the darkest chapters in Europe’s history.
The Holocaust was a singularly monstrous crime that we, as a society and humanity, have not only a solemn duty to remember, but an obligation to learn from.
Although the Holocaust was the direct, systematic and attempted annihilation of the Jewish people, first by words and through dehumanization, and then through the Nazi infrastructure of death, its lessons are universal, immediate and applicable to all mankind.
It taught us that when society, or political leadership condones, turns its back or fails to speak out against racism or persecution against any group of people based on their race or nationality, such actions will create combustible situations where words can, and do, very rapidly turn to violent actions.
Given the current situation in Europe, where in some places it is just not safe anymore to wear a Kippah, where Synagogues are being firebombed, or where calls to boycott Jews are replaced with calls to boycott the Jewish state and where over one-third of Jews are afraid to identify publicly as such, one may be forgiven for asking if indeed the necessary lessons of the Holocaust have been learnt?
The great Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Regrettably, seventy-three years after the Holocaust, it would appear that society at large, and political leadership in Europe in particular, are not only forgetting the past, but also failing to draw on these lessons of the Holocaust.
We see around us today, especially in the Middle East, entire groups of people continuing to be persecuted based on their faith, race or nationality.
With almost total impunity, we have seen unspeakable crimes against humanity carried out. Men, women and children slaughtered, as too many in society and positions of leadership, stand idly by, ignoring the lessons of history and thereby repeating mistakes of the past.
It is our duty, and responsibility, as both citizens of the human race and members of the family of nations, to speak out in the face of such atrocity, to give voice to the voiceless and to empower the victims.
As Jews, who today continue to be targeted not only because of our race, but because also of our nation state, Israel, we need to recognise that this form of subjugation is not unique to the Jewish people.
As a people who has suffered through Inquisition, Pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust, the Jewish community must first and foremost consider ourselves as a partner in this wider struggle for tolerance and eradication of hate, and cooperate with other faith groups in the battle for our joint and inalienable right to exist peacefully.
Auschwitz ought to serve as a brutal reminder that the Holocaust did not begin with the death camps; that’s where it ended. Rather, it began with words, the singling out of one group of people and the dehumanization of an entire race.
We must learn from the Holocaust that there ought to be zero tolerance or admissibility of racism or persecution against any group of people based on their race or nationality.
In order to understand this lesson, we must all learn about the history of the Holocaust, a lesson that might be taught not only to children, but reminded also to adults and etched into our collective minds.
Nobody is born to hate – they learn to hate. If we can change this mindset from a young age, that can make a crucial difference.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, implored us to “take sides”, warning “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Remembering the Holocaust and commemorating the victims, including the 6 million Jews who were murdered in this darkest of chapters in human history, is imperative for all mankind.
However, remembrance alone is not enough.
With Antisemitism again at record levels throughout many parts of Europe and minorities across the world persecuted based solely on the faith, gender or nationality, we also have an obligation to act. That is the true lesson of the Holocaust.
We must speak out, loudly and unequivocally, against racism and hatred.
We must never remain indifferent to the suffering of others or stand idly by in the face of such evil.
We must always give voice to the voiceless.
Let us use this upcoming Holocaust Memorial Day as a clarion call to action, to both never forget the past, but also strive to learn from this most tragic page in the history of mankind in order to create a better future for our world.
- Vladimir is President of The Israeli-Jewish Congress (IJC)