It’s January 27th, Holocaust Memorial Day.
The Holocaust happened a long time ago, of course, and so scarred the psyche of humanity that we like to take comfort in the idea that it couldn’t happen again. That’s nonsense, of course, because attempted genocide happens with terrifying frequency, and while it’s easy to see why many victims of the Holocaust want to consign it to the past, “Never Forget” is a powerful weapon against history repeating itself. A couple of years ago, the BBC archive made available Richard Dimbleby’s report on the liberation of the concentration camp at Belsen. Apparently it almost didn’t get broadcast – the powers that be couldn’t believe that Dimbleby wasn’t exaggerating.
The terrifying thing is, some people still think the events described were a myth.
But, as the theme of this year’s events is ‘Speak Up, Speak Out’, It’s also a time to remember the heroes who shone in dark times. Like Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portugese consul to Bordeaux during the Nazi invasion of France. In definance of his government’s orders, he started issuing visas to Jews and other people escaping Hitler’s tyranny, including the Belgian cabinet. As the article points out, Mendes saved more people than Oskar Schindler but he remains fairly unknown today, a situation which the families of those he helped are now trying to change. Hopefully this will result in greater acknowledgement of what he did.
Of course, as a Brit, I’d also like to mention Frank Foley, the ‘British Schindler’; in March 2010, a medal of honour was given to 27 Britons (most of them posthumously) who worked to save people from the Holocaust, similar to Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations honour. I didn’t realise that, after the war, Foley lived, died and was buried in Stourbridge, just seven miles from where I live. That proximity brings Foley’s story home – this was real and happened to people who could, conceivably, have walked past my parents on the street.
There’s also Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Hungary who saved tens of thousands of Jews but who was arrested by the Soviet Union after they entered Budapest – he died as a result of this, although circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery. Heroism doesn’t always result in medals and parades.
All this makes me wonder what I’d do in the same situation – like everyone else, I’d like to say I’d do the right thing, but put the Nazi war machine behind me and goodness knows what would happen to all those high ideals. But as the rabbinic quotation goes, “He who saves one life saves the world entire.” While we’re not faced with living in Nazi-occupied Europe, we still have the opportunity to do something to help others. Maybe it’s just a case of figuring out what that is and doing it – most of the above don’t seem to have prevaricated too much, they just got on with handing out passports. And yet sometimes handing out passports, or speaking out, or helping a neighbour can have painful consequences. Holocaust Mememorial Day teaches us that sometimes those consequences have to be faced. And when that happens we can start to dream, if not say, “Never again.”