As the number of survivors in the UK dwindles to 5,000, Stuart Jeffries commemorates Holocaust Memorial Day by hearing the stories six of them have to tell
Sixty-five years ago, the largest Nazi killing camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by the Soviet army. The Holocaust Day Memorial Trust will celebrate the anniversary of that event. So what, you might be thinking. Another anniversary, another wall of newsprint. What, really, is the point of continuing to commemoratesomething that happened a lifetime ago? There are three good reasons. One is, as all the survivors of the Holocaust I interviewed told me, that the slogan “Never again” has become a sick joke, degraded by the genocides in Cambodia (1975-79), Bosnia (1992), Rwanda (1994) and Darfur (2003- today). We have learned too little and let people die en masse not for what they did but for who they were – just as happened in the Nazi death camps.
Second reason: this is one of the last years we are going to have many Holocaust survivors in Britain to share with us what they went through. The Holocaust Day Memorial Trust estimates there are 5,000 survivors left in the UK. It’s urgent that we hear their – often incredible – stories before they die. When the war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945, there were 200,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors, according to one source (Zoe Waxman’s 2006 book Writing the Holocaust, Oxford University Press).
But Jews weren’t the only victims, nor the Holocaust’s only survivors: the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, for instance, defines Holocaust survivors as “any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were displaced, persecuted or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945. In addition to former inmates of concentration camps, ghettos and prisons, this definition includes, among others, people who were refugees or were in hiding.” The museum has a registry that includes more than 196,000 records related to survivors and their families. Any estimate of the number of Holocaust survivors immediately after the war, though, is likely to be wrong, not least because no one then had as their first priority counting up the number of people who survived the death camps.
Third reason: many of the survivors I spoke to, while hopeful for Britain’s future, drew parallels between the Nazi Holocaust and the way ethnic minorities are treated in the UK today. As Carly Whyborn, chief executive officer of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, says: “Britain is not Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It is not Pol Pot’s Cambodia. But on Holocaust Memorial Day we can pause to look at how we treat those around us. We can all make the choice to challenge exclusion when we see it happening – we can choose to stop using language that dehumanises others and we can stop our friends and family from dehumanising and excluding others.” Otherwise, it might be added, we haven’t really learned the lessons of the Holocaust or later genocides.
Memories of the Holocaust: Zigi Shipper
Memories of the Holocaust: Harry Spiro
Memories of the Holocaust: Sabina Miller
Memories of the Holocaust: Ben Helfgott
Memories of the Holocaust: Martin Stern
Memories of the Holocaust: Kitty Hart-Moxon