Zalman Gradowski’s words are a rallying cry for us all
In 1945, a series of notes were discovered, hidden in the ground at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They had been buried by men who knew they would soon be murdered in the gas chambers and who risked everything to write on scraps of paper in the desperate hope that their final words would be found.
One of those notes was from Zalman Gradowski, a Polish Jew who was forced by the Nazis to work as a Sonderkommando, working in the gas chambers and crematoria.
He wrote “I have a request of you: this is the real reason why I write, that my doomed life may attain some meaning, that my hellish days and hopeless tomorrows may find a purpose in the future.”
Today, 75 years on, we read with horror about the existence of 13 tonnes of human hair forcibly shaved from Uyghur women in China and we see reports of over a million Uyghur detained in ‘re-education’ camps – the largest incarceration of a minority group since the end of the Second World War.
And, as we see the official documents that show a policy of mass sterilisation and drone footage of hundreds of blindfolded prisoners being forced onto trains, I cannot help but recall Zalman Gradowski’s words.
The Chinese Ambassador can claim – as he did on the Andrew Marr programme on Sunday – that “there is no such concentration camp in Xinjiang” but the evidence is there for us all to see.
And having seen it, we have a duty to speak out and to act.
We of all people know the value of hearing from a witness – that famous quote from Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel tells us when you hear from a witness, you become a witness.
Well, today we hear from those who have escaped or survived.
Exiled members of China’s Uyghur minority have given evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court.
We need to listen and we need to share their stories.
According to the US Holocaust Museum and Memorial, between one and three million Uyghurs out of a population of 12 million are currently in some form of detention and those who are not, still face rapidly tightening control restricting their ability to express who they are. The Chinese government claims they are cracking down on extremism, but they are targeting an entire ethnic group.
The Holocaust was a unique and unprecedented event in human history, and the lessons live on.
We of all people know all too well what happens when a group is singled out and targeted, made into an ‘other’, persecuted, and dehumanised; and we of all people know how deafening silence and inaction can be.
In the 1930s and 1940s the world was silent.
Today, we recognise our duty to stand up and speak out.
We cannot be silent as the world becomes increasingly aware of the persecution of the Uyghur community. This is happening in a global, interconnected world where information is at our fingertips and social media enables the spread of information faster than ever before.
Every news report, every video online, every testimony should be a rallying cry for all of us.
This matters because we know that targeting people based on their faith, culture or identity can have repercussions beyond our darkest imagining.
It matters because dehumanising a group, moving them from their homes, tearing their families apart, stripping them of their right to practise their faith, preventing them from having children and even removing their hair, strips them of their very humanity – and is a warning sign of a breakdown of civilisation.
It matters because the protection of basic human rights, of basic dignity, is our responsibility to our fellow human beings.
So today I ask you to remember the words of Zalman Gradowski, who secretly buried his words next to the gas chambers so that the world would remember his suffering and give it meaning in the future. Today is that future.