The text of my HMD presentation to the Wellingborough commemorative event held on Saturday January 28th 2017 at the Wellingborough Museum
Good morning. Thank you for this opportunity to give this presentation to you today. It’s an honour and privilege and I hope that you find it interesting, but also challenging – for which I don’t apologise!
Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day which is commemorated on 27 January every year in commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland by Russian/Soviet troops in 1945 towards the end of the Second World War.
What was the Holocaust?
Between 1941 and 1945, the Nazis attempted to kill all of Europe’s Jews. This systematic and planned attempt to murder all Jewish people in Europe is known as the Holocaust (The Shoah in Hebrew) and it is unique in Human history. The first time an attempt was made to eliminate a whole group of people based on their religion/race/ethnicity using the whole apparatus of a modern state and society.
The holocaust also resulted in the murder of millions more as a result of prejudice and hatred: homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled people, Black people and other ethnic minorities, and political opponents of the Nazis.
From the time they assumed power in 1933, the Nazis used propaganda, persecution, and legislation to deny human and civil rights to Jews and other groups. They used centuries of antisemitism (hatred of Jewish people) as their foundation and new pseudo-scientific ideas of eugenics and the notation iof creating a “perfect human being”. By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women and children had either perished in ghettos or through mass-shootings, in concentration camps and by gassing in extermination camps, such as Auschwitz.
Can you imagine what six million people looks like? It’s hard. That’s at least 200+ football stadiums (with 30,000 capacities each) or 100 towns the size of Wellingborough: women, men, children and older people, all murdered.
Today we are going to watch a short film clip, in which this man, Ivor Perl, who was born in Hungary, tells us his experiences during the Holocaust.
Watching Ivor’s film tells us about the stories beyond those statistics which are too huge for us to comprehend. It tells us that the Holocaust was the story of Jewish people being forced to move from their own homes to ghettos and camps. Of families being forced apart. Of the diseases like typhus which were allowed to spread as people were forced to live in appalling conditions. And his story tells us that half of Hungary’s Jewish population were killed in only four months in 1944, and that Ivor himself lost all but one of his 8 brothers and sisters, and both of his parents.
Ivor’s testimony also tells us that, for Ivor, the legacy of the Holocaust continues. He tells us that he fears people more than he fears God; it was people who played with him as friends one week and on the second week herded him and his family into a ghetto. He speaks of his daily reminders of things which happened to him in the past.
But he also speaks of his delight at moving to the UK and beginning to set up a life here, displaying so proudly in his home the pictures of his children and grandchildren. He tells us about his talks in schools and community groups, and that he feels if only one person hears his story and makes a difference, it was worth his while.
There are hundreds of us here today. On Holocaust Memorial Day we can reflect on the ways in which we can make a difference after hearing Ivor’s testimony. We can reflect on the particular questions that Ivor asked in the film.
What has it helped?
He asks ’What has the world learned since 1945?’ and, sadly, since the end of World War Two, there have been genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur where millions of people have been murdered simply because of who they are. This suggests the world has not learnt much. So what can we learn?
Our understanding of social psychology – how our brains work within a social context - might have some of the answers. This tells us that all human beings (you, me, and others) are all capable, given the wrong/right circumstances, of committing great crimes and horrors. Genocides and human rights abuses are not committed by evil people, but by people, just like you and me, doing evil thinks to other human beings.
- Playing the “us”/“them” game of stigmatising
groups in society who we don’t like or blaming for all our problems. Or holding
prejudicial or stereotyped views of such groups. We do this easily and almost
automatically, without thought. We are easily seduced by the lies and
misrepresentations of unprincipled politicians hungry for votes and power who
tell us such groups are to blame. And what
groups are in the frame in today’s world for such demonisation and hatred? Mexicans (in the US), Muslims, refugees,
immigrants, migrants from the European Union, asylum-seekers, benefit
scroungers... you can add your own
favourites if you like as more are added on an almost daily basis as we
split up into our own clans and comfortable zones of exclusion behind walls,
borders and fences – physical structures - but possibly even more damaging
divisions in our minds and thoughts. Us
and them... it’s an easy game to play, but with disastrous consequences.
- Inflicting harm
on “others”, especially those who are stigmatised: being blind to their
suffering or actively creating the conditions in which harm is done: harassment
and hate crimes; our indifference or even hostility to hundreds of thousands of
refugees, some of whom are dying in
the Mediterranean or freezing to death in Serbia or Greece, or living in dire
conditions in concentrations camps at the borders of Hungary; our indifference to disabled people who are dying or
committing suicide because of the dehumanising nature of our benefit system;
physical attacks on Polish people,
or Muslims, or indeed anyone who
stands up for minorities and the vulnerable – such as MP Jo Cox.
- But I hear you say: “we wouldn’t do that, we wouldn’t do harm to others”. But what would you do I ask?
How would I have behaved?
· Ivor Perl asks us to reflect on our own actions or inactions. Do we/you stand by and watch, or do you say “no, this is wrong, it must stop!”? Do you actively get involved in challenging prejudice and injustices? Would you stand up or would you remain silent?
Ivor asked ‘how would I have behaved if I had been the gentile (the person who was not Jewish)?’ We can also ask ourselves ‘what would I have done if I had seen my neighbours forced out of their homes and onto trains or into ghettoes simply for who they were? Would I have stood by? Or would I have spoken out?’ The Holocaust was allowed to happen because the people with the power and the knowledge to stop it stood by and did nothing.
So in the contemporary world we need to ask: what am I doing?
At the end of Ivor’s film he says ‘the only thing we can do is not answer hate with hate.’ Perhaps we can challenge ourselves to go even further.
As Elie Wiesel, another Holocaust survivor, wrote:
‘I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’
Don’t stand by
With the words of Ivor Perl and Elie Wiesel in mind, with our understanding of human psychology in mind, I would ask you today to commit to not standing by.
When we see acts of injustice, don’t stand by. When we hear of intolerance, don’t stand by. When we see people being picked on because of who they are, don’t stand by. And when we see others act on their hatred, don’t stand by. And, if and when we see others “not standing by” and challenging, support them too – especially if we don’t have the courage to do it ourselves.
If we can all make the commitment today that we will not stand by when others face prejudice, perhaps we can help the world learn lessons from the past to create a better, safer future.
HMD 2017 Film
I would like to finish with another short film that has been produced for HMD 2017. It challenges us to think about how we can support those who face hostility today and create a safer society together.