International Holocaust Memorial Day
Last week, on the 27th January, the world remembered International Holocaust Memorial Day. A most significant day in the collective conscience, one which commemorates 76 years since the liberation of the first death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet forces in January of 1945.
Sadly, there is a decreasing number of individuals for whom the things about which I’m writing are personal memories: individuals who lived through, and were liberated from, the darkness and brutality of extermination camps such as Majdanek, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka and Auschwitz.
In a short article, I couldn’t hope to even begin to catalogue the lessons that should be taken away from the state sponsored, systematic murder of over 2.7 million people; not forgetting those who died from exhaustion, starvation and disease whilst in transit. Nor should we forget those who died from systemic persecution across Eastern and Western Europe or that over ninety percent of those who died in the camps were of one race, the Jews.
There are many things that have long interested me about the holocaust, the first of which are the accounts of those individuals who survived. How, with the limitations of language, the writers mind searches for the right words, words which try to adequately convey the experiential horrors of those who entered into the wicked recesses of the human imagination and those who perpetrated the vision of its architects.
The other side to this of course is to try and mentally reconcile the position of those who stood at the gates, and watched from the towers. Those whose glances and directions ushered hundreds and thousands to their untimely death. One of the greatest causes of personal sadness is in understanding that these were not a special breed of sub-human monsters. Nor were they unwilling victims forced to carry out the whims of those in authority over them. These were ‘normal’ people, who held down ‘normal’ jobs in pre-war years and who lived in towns and cities in one of the most prosperous countries in the world at the time.
It’s easy for us perhaps in 2021 to think that we’re somehow immune or exempt from the same moral bankruptcy of those that carried out the holocaust. That somehow, 76 years later, we wouldn’t so easily be caught up into an ideology and a worldview that would subject another human being to such degradation and hatred and that we could and would ensure that this never happens again.
Winston Churchill wrote: “free men and women denounce these vile crimes and when this world struggle ends with the enthronement of human rights, racial persecution will be ended.”
I wonder whether, with an open heart, we can ask ourselves why it is that in our advanced and enlightened, western world, so wholeheartedly pursuing human rights, the champions of civil rights, the advocates of equality and liberty for all, our society feels more polarised, more divided and more apart than I can ever remember.
Sadly, the struggle hasn’t ended. Human rights might be enthroned as the pinnacle of human achievement in the 20th Century, but the persecution is far from ended. Irrespective of your political leaning, the words ‘I can’t breathe’ cast one of many evocative shadows over a tumultuous 2020.
As you would expect from a ‘church blog’ we turn back to the Bible for the truth. Unfortunately, the underlying, unpalatable truth of the human condition is that whilst we might remain overwhelmingly optimistic about our own propensity to redeem both ourselves and our broken society the solution to the problem isn’t in our own hands.
So what might the solution be, and in what or whom can we find our hope? The symbol of hope on International Holocaust Memorial Day is a lit candle, symbolic of light in the darkness but as Christians we look back to another day of liberation. A day when light emerged from an unnatural darkness and a man on a crucifix outside of a middle-eastern city could cry ‘finished’, ushering into a scene marked by hatred and an outpouring of evil a new dawn of healing for the brokenhearted, deliverance to the captive, and liberty to those that are bruised.