On Holocaust Memorial Day, PETER UNDERWOOD considers how just trying to help others is a less-than-ordinary act of humanity
Today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.
Since 2000, January 27 has also been designated international Holocaust Memorial Day, a day committed to preserving the memory of all those who were murdered in the Holocaust.
This is a day not just to remember the millions of people murdered under Nazi persecution but also to mark those killed in the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
While the day is important to remember all of those who suffered and died, the memorial day is also part of the ongoing need to educate people about what happened. We all need to understand how the Holocaust came about to try to stop it happening again.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is “Ordinary People”. In every atrocity, ordinary people were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses – and ordinary people were victims. The theme aims to prompt us to consider how ordinary people, such as ourselves, can perhaps play a bigger part than we might imagine in challenging prejudice today.
Watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil”: evil acts are the result of ordinary people obeying orders. Ordinary people were policemen involved in rounding up victims, secretaries typing the records of genocide, dentists and doctors carrying out selections, ordinary people were neighbours wielding machetes in Rwanda, school teachers turned concentration camp guards in Bosnia.
But most ordinary people living under a murderous regime don’t take an active role in genocide. They take no action to contribute to it, yet neither do they take action to challenge it, prevent it or to stop it. They let the genocide take place around them. They either passively agree with what’s going on or they lie to themselves that there is nothing they could do about it.
The people who fight back against genocide are often portrayed as extraordinary, or superhuman, with amazing bravery and skill. While this may be true in some instances, many describe themselves as just ordinary people doing what any ordinary person could do.
Sometimes they were able to provide food to others who needed it. Sometimes they hid people or helped them escape. Sometimes they organised political campaigns against the prejudice or highlighted the atrocities to people living far away. Sometimes they just provided a warm welcome and a promise of safety to those escaping the holocaust.
We also need to remember that the victims of genocide were ordinary people, too.
They simply had an aspect of their identity that the perpetrators did not like and that made them targets for persecution. Sometimes, people did not even identify as a member of the victim group, but the rules were defined by the perpetrators.
The rules often change and so people who may have supported or ignored the persecution of one group then found that they were being targeted next. We all need to remember the example of Pastor Martin Niemöller.
He was a National conservative and initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler and a self-identified antisemite, but he opposed the Nazification of German Protestant churches and for his opposition, Niemöller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1938 to 1945.
After the war he wrote this:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me –
And there was no one left to speak for me.
Personally, Holocaust Memorial Day is about reminding myself that at various points in my life I have been many different types of ordinary person.
Growing up I knew that if we lived under the Nazis, my family would have been sent to the camps. Through my life I have also been part of and got to know some of the most oppressed and despised groups of people. To my shame I have also said and done things that I now know came from prejudice and ignorance and I have also stayed silent at times when I should have spoken out.
But all of this is because I am an ordinary person. We are not saints and we all make mistakes. The important thing is that can learn and we can change and we can stand up for what’s right.
We can question our own beliefs. We can question what we have been told by newspapers, politicians, family and friends. We can choose to listen to those being persecuted instead of those doing the persecuting. We can choose to help people instead of making their life worse.
On this Holocaust Memorial Day I hope you find some time to pause and reflect on what sort of ordinary person you are, how you think about and treat other people. We know from history that it is ordinary people like us who could end up witnessing more atrocities.
But, most importantly, it is ordinary people like us who can make sure that the next Holocaust doesn’t happen.
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Absolutely right the day is recognized.
I attended the London City Hall Holocaust ceremony. Amongst the telling stories retold was one that involved Croydon.
Joan Salter MBE was from a Polish Jewish family that became ensnared in the jaws of the Nazis but she escaped as a very young child via Belgium, Paris, Vichy, Spain and Lisbon.
Adopted as a four year old child in the States she could recall the trauma of meeting her natural parents again as an eight year old in 1947 at Croydon Airport. The Airport, she told me after ceremony, she recalls for its temporary buildings as well for that trauma of the reunification that came after the life-time scarring effects of the Holocaust.
An informative, moving article from Peter Underwood.
The concept of “ordinary people” doing terrible small things that all cruel and wrong in their own right , adding up to form the immense attrocity of the Holocaust is , of course, uncomfortably true.
Who knows, had the English Channel not existed, how soon our armed forces might have been overwhelmed, after which every British person would have found they had a choice of collaboration, passive acceptance, or heroic resistance to the Nazi evil.
Thank God for all those who defeated it..
But it remains a question. We ordinary naked apes are flawed. We need to constantly work on rooting out the prejudice that lurks in dark corners inside ourselves, and within every human institution.