Friday is Holocaust Memorial Day – a day, sponsored by Her Majesty’s Government, and a day recognised by 44 other countries across Europe and the Americas. I will be spending time discussing Holocaust Memorial Day, this Friday, at a Catholic prep school. And on Thursday afternoon an e-mail appeared in my in-tray from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflecting on Pastor Niemoller still astounding poem.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak out because I was Protestant.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
The appointed theme, for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is speaking up against hatred and discrimination and I find myself reflecting in two opposing directions.
The Holocaust is particularistic. It’s a Jewish tragedy in which the hatred and cruelty visited on Jews was qualitatively unlike any genocide before or since. The Holocaust grew through the leadership of politicians who captured the hearts of ordinary Germans by fanning sparks of latent racial and religious antisemitism. It’s not just another genocide. It’s my story, my loss, my people. I reserve the right to be angry, to be bereaved, to find it impossible to ‘move on.’ In his book, The Sunflower, the great Nazi criminal hunter Simon Wiesenthal chronicles how he was taken from his concentration camp hell to the bedside of a dying SS officer. The soldier ‘confessed’ to--and wanted absolution from--a Jew for his barbarous acts. Wiesenthal remained silent. He wasn’t, and I am not, ‘ready to let go.’
But the Holocaust has to, also, be universalised – shackling the Holocaust too firmly to its own historical moment threatens to turn the Shoah into a museum piece. I feel this especially as the generation of survivors dwindle. To keep the Holocaust alive means to line up our own losses next to the Kurds, the Vietnamese, the Tutsis and even those whose losses are less genocidal than our own. For the failure to speak out costs lives other our own and damages lives even without ending them.
There were too many who did not speak out in the 1930s and 40s and we should seize the opportunity to share with as broad a spectrum of those willing to stand up against hatred in every way we can this Holocaust Memorial Day. Our own hurt and loss can be mourned in April when we will mark Yom Hashoah.