Let history still bear witness to the Holocaust

By Karen Pollock, September 18, 2013

In the Warsaw Ghetto in August 1942, 19-year-old David Graber, knowing he might die in the next few hours, buried a note with the words: “I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world... may the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened… in the 20th century… May history be our witness.”

David Graber did not survive to witness the moment when his note was discovered, but the courage that it took for him to write his message to the world, under threat of almost certain death, is a symbol of why, in 1988, Merlyn Rees and Greville Janner felt the world needed to understand what happened during the darkest days of the 20th century.

Seeing the lack of knowledge about the Holocaust throughout British society, and recognising the danger that this posed, they established the Holocaust Educational Trust.

On Monday evening, we were honoured to welcome the Prime Minister to our appeal dinner, marking the 25th anniversary of that insightful decision by Merlyn and Greville. In the presence of the Chief Rabbi, the US ambassador and the Israeli ambassador, parliamentarians and more than 500 guests, the Prime Minister made a moving tribute to Holocaust survivors, the people who, despite the horrors of their past, have made it their mission to speak to as many young people as possible, travelling tirelessly around the country to share their testimony.

Our anniversary provides an opportunity to celebrate our achievements and note what has changed in the past 25 years.

When Merlyn and Greville formed the Trust, almost 50 years had passed since the outbreak of war and the Holocaust was at risk of silently slipping into history. The subject was not taught widely in schools, was rarely discussed in public forums, and few survivors shared their testimony.

The work of the Trust has helped to change that — the Holocaust is now compulsory on the National Curriculum for history, thousands of teachers have been trained to deliver this challenging subject, tens of thousands of students and teachers have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau through our Lessons from Auschwitz project and hundreds of thousands of young people have heard the first-hand testimony of a Holocaust survivor.

People risked everything to leave a trace behind

As well as reflecting on our achievements over the past 25 years, we must focus on the next 25 years, when the country will be on the cusp of marking the centenary of the beginning of the Second World War. Almost a century will separate students and the Holocaust, and we will be living in a world without survivors, without eye-witnesses.

We will be living in a society that is separated from the Holocaust and, with that, comes the risk that its unprecedented nature may be forgotten and it may be considered as just another historical tragedy. Again, we will face the danger of the Holocaust passing quietly into history.

We must be prepared for a situation, in a relatively short period of time, in which the reason for remembrance will be questioned more and more. There are many reasons to remember the Holocaust, including the contemporary lessons we can take.

As the world yet again considers how to help voiceless victims, it is essential to know about and understand the Holocaust if we are to decide what lessons should be drawn from it. But the act of remembrance in itself is vitally important — those who suffered and ultimately perished under the Nazis tried to leave a record of what had happened to them for the world to find and we must honour their memory.

David Graber, among many others, left his final message for a simple reason — that the world should know what happened to them, and that they should not be forgotten. Throughout the Holocaust, people in the most horrific of circumstances risked everything to leave a trace of what they had endured, and to show that they had existed.

Each generation must learn the stories of the individuals who were murdered and those who survived and were able to share their experiences.

We have a duty to them to ensure that in the decades ahead, future generations who have no personal memory of, or connection to the Holocaust, understand it and will not let it be forgotten.

Karen Pollock MBE is chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust

Last updated: 11:33am, October 3 2013