27th January, 2022

Holocaust Memorial Day

Ampleforth Society

Holocaust Memorial Day: 27 January – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Treblinka in Poland is one of the bleakest places on earth. There, in just fifteen months between July 1942 and October 1943, on a site no bigger than a few rugby pitches and hidden in thick forest, gas chambers capable of killing 20,000 people a day exterminated around one million Jews. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1.1 million Jews were exterminated.  This was the Holocaust – the systematic, industrialised extermination of, it was intended, an entire race. In total, over six million Jews perished. One and a half million were children. Alongside the Jews, 500,000 Sinti and Roma were exterminated too.

But what does this mean? Six million Jews. In today’s fast world it is easy to allow numbers even as large as this to wash over us. But we cannot. We must pause and think. Six million Jews. Six million! If you counted at the rate of one a second, twenty-four hours a day, it would take you two and a half months to count that number. And they were not a number; they were six million individuals. Individuals who were born. Who lived and who laughed and who cried; who loved and who were loved. Who had hopes for the future. All rubbed out. Men and women, children and babies. All as ordinary and as innocent as you and me. All murdered; all destroyed. When you see their photographs, read about their lives, read about their deaths, you feel with full force that they were not just a number but real people and it moves you to tears.

It is important to remember this because, while there are many, many powerful and important reasons for remembering the Holocaust, the most important is to remember the victims – the lives lost, the unimaginable suffering endured, the communities decimated. Holocaust Memorial Day is about them. It is not the same as learning about the Holocaust in history lessons. History lessons on the Holocaust, with horrible irony, tend to be more about the Nazis, about their aims and policies, about what they did and about how it happened. All of this is important to know of course. But it is easy to lose focus on the Jews themselves. Holocaust Memorial Day is about the Jews – the victims, those who lost so much, those who lost everything. It is about remembering them and honouring their memory; it is about putting them first.

But it is also about more than this. It is about pausing to remember that it happened, to understand how and why it happened and to ensure that it does not happen again. I have been privileged to have met several survivors of the Holocaust and we, at Ampleforth, have been particularly privileged and honoured to have had Arek Hersh, a survivor of Auschwitz, visit each year to talk movingly and powerfully to our Sixth Form and answer the questions they have. Long after they have forgotten everything their A level teachers will have taught them, they will remember him. And the one thing that every Holocaust survivor – bar none – has urged us all to do, especially as they know that soon there will be no survivors left able to tell their story first hand, is to ensure that we and future generations never forget that the Holocaust happened, that we learn from the past and that we do everything we can to ensure that it never happens again. To be attuned to where, when and how antisemitism and racism surface and grow and to confront it. To educate people, especially the young, to be understanding and tolerant of others. To be kind. Holocaust Memorial Day is very much about this too.

It is, therefore, a day on which we also remember other appalling genocides that reflect the depths of man’s inhumanity to man – the Hutu genocide of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in just one hundred days in 1994, the Bosnian Serb murder of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995, the systematic murder of between 80,000 and 500,000 Darfuri in Western Sudan as well as other genocides. It is a time to remind ourselves that we cannot be complacent. It can happen again. It does. It is happening now. We have responsibilities. As Martin Luther King commented in the context of the Civil Rights struggle in America, ‘we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’

Holocaust Memorial Day is undoubtedly therefore, of course, extremely solemn, sombre and sad. But it is also about optimism, about hope and about love. It is a time to give thanks that despite the enormous suffering and loss, the Jews as a people survived. Also that in one of the very darkest of times for mankind, there were glimmers of light – small but strong, bright and powerful. That while so many descended into mass murder, some stood firm to their humanity and were not ‘silent.’ Righteous Gentiles who acted despite the danger. Oskar Schindler, who saved over one thousand one hundred Jews by bribing officials to allow him to employ them in his factory. Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from being deported to almost certain death. Nicholas Winton, who saved 669 Jewish children by getting them out of Germany to Britain on the eve of war. There were many others, all reminders of what mankind is capable of if brave and firm when confronted with evil and wrong.

Here is a story. In 1940, the Nazis set up the Warsaw ghetto into which the Jews of Warsaw were forced. In it was an orphanage. It was run by a man called Janusz Korczak, a Jewish writer. In 1942, the order came for the children to be taken to Treblinka. Everyone knew they would not come back. Korczak could have escaped – friends outside the ghetto had arranged this. But Korczak would not leave the children in their darkest and most terrifying hours, their last moments of life. He would stay with them. He would comfort and hold them. He knew he would also die. Then, as they were leaving, an SS officer recognised him as the author of books that his own children enjoyed and offered to save him. Again, though, Korczak refused. He would stay with the children. Within days they were all dead – exterminated at Treblinka.

Korczak’s story combines so much of the tragedy, loss, waste and yet somehow hope that we must remember each Holocaust Memorial Day. At the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, there is a statue of Korczak. He is carrying a small boy who is holding him tightly in love and in fear. Korczak is holding the hand of a small girl and behind her are about ten other smaller and smaller children all walking in a line and holding hands. At the back is a pram with a baby. Korczak is weeping. All are doomed. I have seen this statue. I and everyone with me stopped, looked, bit our lips and tried to fight back the tears – we all failed. The tears flowed. I have never been so moved. I have never seen anything in real life move so many people to tears.

The Holocaust was so awful, so tragic – please remember the victims. There is a large part of me that thinks that on Holocaust Memorial Day if people are not at some point moved to tears, it has not quite had the impact it should.

Paul Connor| Head of History | Ampleforth College