It’s 75 years since the Red Army entered the camp that has become a symbol of the Holocaust – Auschwitz. What they found there changed the way we see the world, and see our fellow human beings.
But the dwindling number of eye witnesses – a relatively small number who were deported to concentration camps as children (huge numbers of children were deported, but probably the majority were killed on arrival as they could not be put to work) – makes it ever more vital that we listen to what they say, that we read their accounts, that we study and remember what happened.
Because it could happen again – indeed, it has happened, again and again, to Tutsis in Rwanda, the Rohingya in Myanmar, to Igbos in Nigeria, to Muslims in Bosnia, to various ethnic and religious groups as well as to the supposed ‘elite’ in Cambodia. And, of course, in Nazi Germany it didn’t just happen to the Jews. We remember the people with disabilities killed in the ‘euthanasia’ programme, and the homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses who were targeted. And in particular, the Roma people who were rounded up and murdered – and who have had no respite in the intervening years from bigotry and hatred.
But we need to study not only what happened at Auschwitz and the other camps across Europe, but what happened before that. Because the Nazis did not begin with mass slaughter. They began by a process of othering.
Little by little, Jews were identified, by various means. Stamps in ID documents, allocation of generically Jewish names – Sarah and Israel – to all Jews, notices on Jewish owed businesses.
Little by little, they were isolated from former colleagues, neighbours, classmates. Jewish doctors could not treat Aryan patients, Jewish teachers could only teach Jewish children, and there were restrictions on Jews employing Aryans in their home. Both marriage and extramarital relations between Jews and Aryans were barred.
Little by little, the dissemination of anti-Jewish rhetoric filtered into all areas of society. If they were assimilated into German society, this was presented as a kind of dangerous infiltration. If they were not (like the Jews from Eastern Europe who had made their homes in Germany) they were caricatured and condemned as primitive.
Because what came after this was so horrific, we forget the years in which that process of identification and isolation was preparing the way for the horror.
As these ‘others’ became more and more isolated, it was easier for the rest not to notice when people disappeared, to look the other way when they were attacked in the streets. And it was easier, when they weren’t your neighbour, your doctor, your teacher, your colleague, to believe the propaganda. To start to believe that they were ‘A Problem’, that they were a threat. It was easier to choose not to know or to ask what was happening, where the people had gone who had been rounded up in your neighbourhood, or what might happen to them there.
But if we’re looking to draw comparisons and find lessons for our own times, we need to go back to before the Nazi government took power, and introduced the kind of anti-Semitic legislation referred to above. For all of that to be possible, they had to be able to tap into a rich seam of suspicion and prejudice.
In more recent years, when we think of racism, we think of the prejudice faced by the immigrants and descendants of immigrants from the Caribbean and from South Asia, from Africa and East Asia. We think of people who are easily identified, no option of ‘passing’. We think of people who are often economically disadvantaged, only rarely in positions of significant influence and power.
We forget that in Europe before the war, the most significant targets for racism were the Jews. A whole pseudo-science of race purported to prove that they were not only inferior but dangerous. Forgeries such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion purported to ‘expose’ their secret rituals. No matter how contradictory the claims were – they were both Bolsheviks and arch-capitalists, both primitive and highly sophisticated – they were so prevalent as to be accepted almost casually by many. Reading novels written between the wars one is often struck, jarringly, by the stereotypes of Jews (obsequious, money-grubbing) that would surely never make it to print for any reputable publisher today.
So much has changed. And yet today, one does not have to look far or dig very deeply to uncover language and ideas not very different from those so prevalent before the war. For those on the right, George Soros is the shadowy paymaster funding liberal and progressive initiatives, the puppet-master engineering opposition to Brexit and so on. For those on the left, it’s the Zionists who are the paymasters, via the Rothschild banking dynasty who are alleged to control global finances, and are often accused of controlling the ‘mainstream media’ as well. Whilst some of this rhetoric is claimed to be simply opposition to Zionism as a political movement, motivated by anger at the Israeli government, the mask very easily slips.
Both extremes may indulge in Holocaust denial – or at least minimisation. A whole new generation finds ‘revelations’ on the net such as the supposed Red Cross report giving a very low total of deaths and passes them on, saying ‘Hmmm, interesting!’. In fact, a minimal amount of research would have confirmed that there neither was nor could have been any Red Cross report estimating the total number of Holocaust deaths, or deaths in concentration camps. The figure cited so enthusiastically was for deaths in camps to which the Red Cross had access and for which death certificates were issued – excluding therefore the majority of camps, the deaths on arrival, the deaths by mass shootings etc, etc, etc. Aside from the spread of misinformation, what is most alarming is how eager some are to find reasons to believe that the Holocaust has been exaggerated – because to believe that is to buy into a whole complex of Zionist conspiracies.
So whilst none of the other forms of racism have gone away (far from it – if anything they seem more prevalent, certainly more vocal), anti-semitism seems to have made something of a comeback.
None of which is to suggest that in the UK we are close to stripping Jews, or Muslims, or any other group of their citizenship. Except that we effectively allowed unknown numbers of people who came to the UK as children from the Caribbean and believed themselves to be British citizens to suddenly be expected to prove their right to be here, losing their livelihoods, their access to health care, their homes in the process. If we can do that, and that harm has not been undone (and given the shabby way in which EU citizens who have made their homes here, built families here, contributed to our society and our economy are being treated on the eve of Brexit) then we have no grounds for complacency.
The theme for this year’s HMD is ‘Stand Together’. We can read and be inspired by the stories of those who knowingly risked and often lost their own lives to support or protect those others targeted for genocide. But the time to stand together, really, is now. Before populist nationalism and xenophobia get too much of a hold. Before everyone gets too used to seeing people racially abused in the streets. Before the lies and slanders become so prevalent that we no longer trouble to challenge them.
There have been so many inspiring examples of standing together in the face of terrorism. Of people of all faiths and none rallying around when another group is under attack – offering everything from blood donations to security patrols, and demonstrating solidarity by being there, literally standing together.
We must all hope never to have to face the kind of challenges and choices that were and are faced by witnesses to genocides past and present. We must hope that if we stand with each other now, in the face of prejudice and bigotry, that ‘never again’ will be more than a pious catchphrase.
There are those reluctant to believe
Or believing from time to time.
There are those who look at these ruins today
As though the monster were dead and buried beneath them.
Those who take hope again as the image fades
As though there were a cure for the scourge of these camps.
Those who pretend all this happened only once,
At a certain time and in a certain place.
Those who refuse to look around them,
Deaf to the endless cry.Jean Cayrol, Nuit et brouillard (script for Alain Resnais’s 1955 film, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the opening of the camps)