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I’m sure many people have heard, read or been taught, in some form or another, about the Holocaust. Many of you are most likely aware of the atrocities that took place. Approximately six million Jews – around two-thirds of those who resided in Europe at the time – were systematically murdered by the Nazis. Some were worked to death in concentration camps, others gassed, but all were innocent victims targeted for their inferiority. Amongst the countries with Jewish populations, Poland was the worst effected, with 91% of its 3.3 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Millions of other people were also victims of the Nazi’s brutal regime: the disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Polish civilians, Roma and Sinti people (Gypsies), Slavic people, civilians and soldiers from the Soviet Union, Catholics from Poland and Serbs were all targeted.
Ensuring the lessons of the Holocaust continue to be learnt is why we have days such as Holocaust Memorial Day. Having passed on January 27th, it was set up in 2001 to ensure the victims of the Holocaust are remembered. There are also organisations, within the UK, who seek to ensure the Holocaust is not forgotten. – the Holocaust Educational Trust is one of these. Established in 1988, they aim to “educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today”. One way in which they do this is through their Lessons from Auschwitz Project, which involves students and teachers taking part in two afternoon seminars and a one day visit to the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In November 2011, I had the opportunity to be part of this project, including the visit to Auschwitz. The experience isn’t one that you forget. On display are possessions taken from prisoners including shoes, spectacles, clothes as well as piles of human hair. The visit included the chance to walk inside one of the gas chambers. Having this opportunity to visit first-hand places like Auschwitz reinforces the importance of ensuring the Holocaust is remembered and we continue to learn from it.
Yet despite organisations like this, ensuring the Holocaust is remembered by future generations is becoming more and more difficult. As time passes, the number of survivors of the Holocaust dwindles, preventing stories being passed on first-hand from those who experienced these atrocities. It is reasons such as this that Holocaust Memorial Day and the Holocaust Educational Trust are so important to ensure these stories are not forgotten.
So, what lessons can we learn from these events? If anything, the Holocaust has taught us how discrimination can develop into something a lot worse. Yet homophobia and racism are still prevalent issues today. There are numerous well-reported cases of people attacked or murdered for who they were, whether it is their race, religion, sexuality or how they look. For example, in 2007, 20 year-old Sophie Lancaster was kicked and stamped to death in a Lancashire park because she was dressed as a Goth. Even aspects of anti-Semitism remain today. In September 2013, fans at a Polish football match chanted, “Move on, Jews! Your home is at Auschwitz! Send you to the gas (chamber)!” There are many more examples.
If we allow these kinds of attitudes and actions to persist today, it leaves the potential for worse in the future – something that we must actively prevent by ensuring that the stories of survivors continue to live on.
When looking at the horrific events that took place during the Holocaust, it’s easy to get caught up in statistics; after all, six million is a huge number. However, one of the lessons that the Holocaust Educational Trust wants participants to take from their experience is to appreciate that each and every person was an individual. As a result, there is a focus on re-humanising each of the victims and ensuring that the Holocaust has a permanent place in our collective memory. Something, I believe, society would benefit from.