For the future's sake, we must remember the past

By Olivia Marks-Woldman, January 24, 2014

A young man was going on a long journey, and asked a wise woman which way to go. “When you get to the crossroads, take the right-hand turn,” she told him. He came to the crossroads. He looked at the right-hand path. But before he started down the track, he turned to the other roads, and took one final look down the path he had come.

I am often asked if we are in danger of looking back too often, spending too much time peering down a road into the past, instead of fixing our eyes towards the future and forging a way ahead.

Results published today from a survey of over 2,300 people across the UK indicate the contrary: that the past has been ignored or forgotten in too many cases.

Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, and despite genocides having taken place since then, a shocking 91 per cent of 16-24 year old survey respondents say they “do not know what genocide is”. Eighty-one per cent of them couldn’t name a genocide that has taken place since the Holocaust. And in all age groups guesses varied widely – and wildly – about the number of genocides that have taken place since the Holocaust. Only 24 per cent of all respondents knew that this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. And for 16-24 year olds the number was even lower – only 18 per cent.

Even within the Jewish community concern is sometimes expressed that we are in danger of looking back too much and building our identities on our suffering in the Holocaust, or that people feel “Holocaust fatigue”.

How can we sit back and say some people are suffering from Holocaust fatigue?

Does this matter? Should we care if 53 per cent of all respondents can’t name recent genocides and 24 per cent don’t know when the atrocities in Rwanda took place? Should we worry if people accuse us of spending too much time “fixated” on the Holocaust?

The short answer is “yes”. We should care, and we should worry.

These shocking events occurred within recent memory. The Holocaust has been described as “the event which shook the foundations of civilisation” – a hugely powerful phrase. The deaths of six million Jewish people, the devastation and suffering wrought on millions more, should be taught and remembered simply and solely because it happened. Because it happened in civilised and cultured Europe, in the sophisticated, enlightened and industrial 20th century. And of course, because sophistication and industry themselves became the facilitators of the Holocaust.

Yet there is more than this. There is the fact that these events happened and the world learnt nothing from them.
Within a few short decades, genocide took place in Cambodia, then Rwanda, then Bosnia, and now Darfur. Think about what this means. Only a few years after the Holocaust, attempts were made to annihilate communities because of their faith or their ethnic group. And now, frighteningly large numbers of the general population of this country do not have a basic understanding or memory of those events.

How can we possibly sit back and say “perhaps people are suffering some ‘Holocaust fatigue’. Perhaps we should ease off?” Commemorating the Holocaust, mourning those who died, honouring survivors, and, crucially, educating people about more recent genocides — this is important for everyone to do, not only Jews.

The results of our research show us how very important it is to continue doing what we do. Holocaust Memorial Day itself has expanded since its inception in 2000 from 266 local activities in 2006 (when the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust was established by the government) to over 2,000 local activities in January 2013, with even more anticipated this year.

We are privileged that people who endured the worst experiences inflicted by man are willing to relive those memories and share their life stories with others. Survivors of the Holocaust, and of subsequent genocides, often say they are driven by the need to ensure others learn about the past in order to avoid the same horrors taking place again. Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp in Bosnia, told us: “I find speaking about my experiences in public extremely difficult, and I know it is hard to hear. But I want to make people uncomfortable. Only then can we work together to make the world a better place.”

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s honorary president, Ben Helfgott MBE, himself a Holocaust survivor, has worked tirelessly to bear witness to the events of that terrible atrocity, and to demonstrate how survivors have rebuilt their lives without bitterness. He has said of his educational work: “I resolved that I would do my utmost to help to create greater harmony, mutual respect and understanding amongst people. It is a resolution from which I have never wavered.”

It is hugely inspiring to hear survivors and refugees talk and to have the opportunity to learn from them — particularly in hearing about how they managed to overcome those experiences and rebuild their lives. But this is not the only reason why the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust encourages people to place personal stories at the heart of their events.

Genocide follows a period of dehumanisation, when perpetrators seek to erase individuality and humanity. In Rwanda, Tutsis were described as “cockroaches”. Nazi propaganda denounced Jews as “vermin” and in the concentration camps Jewish prisoners’ names were replaced with tattooed numbers. Dehumanisation in this way is systematic, deliberate and takes place over a significant period of time.

The Trust has created an incredible bank of life stories; brief synopses of people’s lives before genocide, their experiences during genocide, and (for those who survived) insights into how they rebuilt their lives after those events.

These life stories act as a way of reclaiming individuality: each person shares his or her name, face and voice with the world. The stories are developed in print and online, as written word, films and podcasts, and form the basis of lesson plans, assemblies and readings for HMD activities. They allow us to make sure that these people and their memories live on with the recognition and honour they deserve, and are a central part of our work.

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust works with other charities — Aegis Trust, Anne Frank Trust, Association of Jewish Refugees, Holocaust Educational Trust among others — which all work hard to facilitate those who are willing and able to tell their life stories to do so.

The annual Holocaust Memorial Day is a valuable opportunity for individuals and communities to learn about the past in a wide variety of ways: through exhibitions and displays, at formal civic ceremonies, in the classroom, in prison workshops, through music, drama and performance. These events often include survivors, who travel across the UK to participate.
But with over 2,000 such activities, most will not be able to hear first-hand from a survivor. Instead, they make use of our films, podcasts, written materials, interactive lessons, presentations, readings or performances as ways of presenting the messages of the Day.

And those messages are not only about the past. Holocaust Memorial Day events encourage participants to consider relevance to today.

In our research we asked people about their views on a range of current issues. Nearly 90 per cent of respondents told us that they worried that “in some countries people are being persecuted for who they are”.

Targeted persecution, though terrible in itself, does not always end in genocide, of course. But wherever genocide has occurred, persecution has been a precursor. It is encouraging that the vast majority of people are expressing concern about this issue, and we see Holocaust Memorial Day as a vital platform from which to help address these concerns. January 27 is not only a day of remembrance – it is a day when we start, or continue, to make the world a slightly better place.

I opened with a story that some of you will have heard our Chief Rabbi Mirvis quote before. You may know how it ends: the young man quickly became confused as he looked at the many paths. “Which way did I come?” he asked himself. “I can’t find the right-hand path if I can’t remember which way I came.”

We all need to know where we have come from in order to know which path ahead to choose.

Olivia Marks-Woldman is chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, established by the government

Olivia Marks-Woldman is chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, established by the government

Last updated: 4:45pm, January 24 2014