There’s a garden in Jerusalem, at the Yad Vashem institute, in which an avenue of trees commemorates those who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. I find that idea powerful, that in a bustling city at the epicentre of religion and politics and geopolitical tensions there’s a place for contemplation and peace and history.
It exists within a wider context, of course, a context of tragedy and horror and violence. It’s right to remember those who survived, the heroes who saved others, but the bigger story is that of the millions killed, industrialised slaughter and the vicious, brutal explosion of racism and xenophobia. I visited Yad Vashem years ago; it’s a place that changes you. I remember a room full of candles and pictures of murdered children. It wasn’t a room to simply walk away from.
More people died than were saved; it’s that simple. We memorialise what happened, not just because of it’s horrific history but because it happens again and again and again, in Rwanda and Cambodia and Bosnia and Darfur, and maybe if we keep remembering, sooner or later we’ll take the damn hint and it won’t happen again.
And yet remembering the rarer stories of the rescued and the rescuers remains important. Holocaust Memorial Day coincides with National Storytelling Week, and maybe telling stories of survivors and rescuers will, if not prevent another genocide somewhere in the world, strengthen reactions to it, light beacons of hope.
So I’ve blogged about Irena Sendler and Astrides de Sousa Mendes before, and then there’s Leopold Socha. A Polish sewage worker, Socha, his wife and a colleague hid a group of Jewish refugees in the sewers under Lwow – a year after the end of the war, Socha was killed saving his daughter from being hit by a truck. I think it’s safe to say that he’s my new hero.
But while I’ve heard of these, and while Oskar Schindler is a household name, I know less of the stories of the death, survival and saviours of gay people and Roma and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Trade Unionists and… The Holocaust is overwhelming in its scale, terrifying in how communities seemed to collapse so suddenly, neighbours colluding in putting the people who lived next door on trains to death camps. The reasons for this – fear, propaganda, malice – all seem painfully inadequate, but they serve as a reminder – these things can ultimately only happen when communities turn against each other. A military can bomb a town, sure, but to operate an infrastructure of identification, registration and murder? That requires communities to turn toxic.
And maybe that’s a reason to remember the Righteous Among the Nations; this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme is ‘Communities Together: Build a Bridge’, and stories of survival demonstrate how various individuals fought to maintain those communities, not simply labelling those around them as Jewish or Gay or Gypsy or Tutsi, but as people, friends, neighbours; a community.
It’s so easy for communities to fracture: a few cynical political and media comments and suddenly attacks on the disabled are on the rise; suggest opening a mosque in certain places and see what reaction you get. It’s terrifying, but the capacity to run that infrastructure I talked about earlier is never as far away as we’d like. “It couldn’t happen here” is only true until it actually happens here.
The stories we tell define our communities; let the stories of the Holocaust, of all the other genocides we watched on the news, act as warnings and testimony, yes, but also as inoculation. Let’s tell stories, not lies; let’s build bridges, not camps.