We mark Holocaust Memorial Day this year against a backdrop none of us could have envisioned. On October 7 our understanding of “Never Again” was turned on its head.
For years, we had hoped — and indeed believed — that after the world saw where antisemitism could lead, after the world had heard about the ghettos and the concentration camps, Auschwitz and Sobibor and Treblinka — that antisemitism, as a mainstream phenomena, had been, on the whole, eroded.
That faith has been shaken many times since the liberation of the camps — not least when antisemitism seeped into mainstream politics here in the UK only a few years ago — but for most of us, the central idea has not wavered. Antisemitism has been exposed, the world will never again stand silent as Jews are taunted, abused and massacred. That’s what we thought.
And then on October 7 we saw 1,300 Jews massacred. We saw 240 kidnapped. We saw raped, brutalised and traumatised survivors. We heard stories we can never unhear and I saw footage I can never unsee.
And we saw the response. The claims of a righteous uprising; the hopes for victory for Hamas in the name of “resistance”.
We saw the protests here in London, week in week out with signs calling for an intifada or the destruction of Israel, comparing the world’s only Jewish State to the Nazis.
We saw Jewish schools here in London, advising their pupils not to wear their uniform, some people taking the step of removing their Kippot, and we all sent messages to family advising them not to go into town on a Saturday. Just this week we saw a group attacked on our streets for the ‘crime’ of speaking Hebrew.
And so, we mark Holocaust Memorial Day with the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust in recent, painful, vivid memory. We mark it with antisemitism at the highest levels most of us have ever seen in our lifetime.
But of course, not the highest that all of our community have ever seen.
This Holocaust Memorial Day, amidst the sorrow and the hatred, Holocaust survivors will share their testimony unrelentingly. They will travel from town to town, speaking in schools, on campuses, and in workplaces. They will go to the places where students have never met a Jewish person. They will go to the places where antisemitic graffiti has been sprayed in school toilets. They will go where the current conflict is at the front of students’ minds, and places where it is not. They will not rest until as many people as possible have heard their story.
They will make sure that in schools up and down the country, young people know what happened when the Nazis set out to destroy a people. They will make sure that they understand that the Holocaust did not start with gas chambers, but with small, creeping, changes. They will talk about the changes that they and their families witnessed – the way that Jewish children were taunted in schools, the way that Jews were edged out of professions, and eventually banned altogether from many. They will talk about losing their friends, their ability to go to school, their citizenship, their security. They will talk about what it was like to be identified, marked out as a Jew. They will talk about being forced to leave their homes, to leave behind everything that they knew, to be relocated into Ghettos and camps. They will talk about what it was like to survive the unimaginable. They will talk about their relatives who did not.
They will share their most horrifying memories, time and time again. Because, despite everything, they hope for a future free from hatred. They hope that in years to come, people will once again say Never Again, and mean it. And they hope that their families, and the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered by the Nazis, will be remembered.
These survivors are our inspiration and our hope.
And, in their persistence and determination, I am reminded this year of my friends, Zigi Shipper and Sir Ben Helfgott, two of the most indefatigable people I have ever met, who are not here to speak.
Zigi and Ben are missed constantly, but since October 7 I have often wondered what they would have made of all of this.
As we go into our first Holocaust Memorial Day without them, I miss Ben’s wisdom. He was unrelentingly determined, and I have no doubt that he would have told us to keep going, to have hope. And I miss Zigi’s spirit, his ability to always find love and joy, in any situation. He would have, as always, ended with a plea. “Whatever you do, do not hate”.