The Schmooze

On Holocaust Memorial Day, let’s safeguard human dignity for all


‘Everything human is reduced to zero.’ This simple diary entry by Hanna Levy-Hass during her incarceration at Bergen-Belsen is a powerful reminder that in addition to the physical violence, the Nazis were engaged in a systematic campaign to rob the Jewish people of their dignity as human beings. Philosophers may disagree on how to define human dignity, but at its core, is the inherent worth and value that every person possesses by the mere virtue of being human. It is not a privilege to be earned, but something bestowed upon all of us at birth, irrespective of our gender, race, religion, socio-economic status or any other characteristic.

As we know, the Nazis began their assault on the dignity and humanity of the Jews through vile propaganda, describing them as “subhuman”, “vermin” or a “threat to society”. This fostered an atmosphere of hatred and contempt, making it easier to segregate the Jews from society and take away their freedoms. Freedoms which, as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust theme for 2024 reminds us, are indeed very fragile. By degrading the sense of human worth or personal value of their victims, the Nazis sought to create an ideological justification for their actions. Every step of their cruel agenda was deliberately designed to obliterate the essence of human dignity. Mass murder was made possible by viewing those under attack as less than human.

Death camps were the epitome of Nazis depravity, the places of their most appalling attacks on human dignity and life itself. Upon arrival, Jewish prisoners were robbed of their individuality and personhood. At Auschwitz, their identities were reduced to mere numbers tattooed on their arms. They were also stripped of their possessions and had their heads forcibly shaved. The Nazis never referred to their Jewish prisoners by their names, only by their tattooed numbers.

In 2018, to mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis said: “We cannot declare ourselves satisfied while there remain men and women deprived of their dignity all over the world. Wherever there are individuals, families and communities who are dehumanised or harassed, we must work and fight on their behalf, to the last.” As I reflect this Holocaust Memorial Day on the Chief Rabbi’s words, I am reminded that in our contemporary society, there is a distressing prevalence of stereotypes that strip certain individuals of their humanity. Those who deviate from societal norms often find themselves marginalised and devalued.

A clear example is the way homeless people are so often stigmatised, demonised as having inflicted their situation on themselves. However, it is vital to recognise that one’s worth as a human being should never be determined by their housing situation. Harmful stereotypes are often perpetuated by some media who resort to dehumanising language about refugees or migrants. Similarly, certain religions are unjustly demonised, leading to prejudiced attitudes.

As a Jewish woman, I am all too often reminded that antisemitism remains a scourge on our society. And since the attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians on October 7, I am concerned by the swift and widespread increase in antisemitism across the UK, with swastikas appearing on Jewish buildings and verbal and physical attacks on Jewish people. As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, let us honour the memory of the six million Jewish men, women, and children who were murdered by committing ourselves to safeguarding human dignity for all.

The Nazis’ campaign to strip away the human dignity of the European Jews and all those who did not fit their warped ideals, through ghettos, forced labour, concentration camps, and genocide, stands as an indelible stain on human history. It will forever remind us of the depths to which humanity can descend when discriminatory ideology is normalised. The legacy of the Holocaust reminds us that preserving human dignity is a tangible responsibility that requires vigilance and commitment from us all. Human dignity and freedom are fundamental values upon which all others are based.

Olivia Marks-Woldman OBE is the chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.


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