The Importance of Memory

By Karen Pollock CBE, Chief Executive, Holocaust Educational Trust

Today we mark Holocaust Memorial Day on the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi concentration and death camp.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember the 6 million Jewish men, women and children who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. We remember them as the people they were before they were victims – as members of families and communities, as teachers or doctors, people who dreamed of travelling, or playing football for their favourite team. Ordinary people with lives ahead of them

Jewish life before the Holocaust

And we can’t help but remember what happened to them – how they were marked out and identified as Jewish, how they were stripped of their property and their rights, how they were stripped of their citizenship and forced out of their homes. How they were forced into ghettos, and starved and beaten and tortured. And how, eventually, they were taken to ravines and fields and purpose-built death camps across Europe and murdered, in their millions, simply because they were Jewish.

For decades after the war, the human stories of the Holocaust were missing from the public discourse. People knew about the Nazis, they knew about Hitler, they knew that there had been gas chambers. But they didn’t know the human face of those whose lives ended in those gas chambers. The victims were alien, abstract, a homogenous group of 6 million. And they certainly didn’t know the stories of the survivors.

Smiling faces of Jewish kids before the horror was to befall them.

There were lots of reasons – survivors were rebuilding their lives; they did not want to keep reopening their deepest and darkest wounds. And even when survivors did speak, they were met with disbelief, or simply with disinterest. Across the world, countries were rebuilding and trying to move on from the war, and stories of the atrocities faced by survivors were a painful reminder of a past that everyone wanted to forget.

Two of the five girls in this photograph—taken in Humenné, Slovakia, around 1936—are known to have been sent to Auschwitz, Poland, on March 25, 1942, as part of the first official transport of Jews to the death camp. Neither Anna Herskovic (second from left) nor Lea Friedman (fourth from left) survived. (Photo courtesy the Grossman and Gross families)

How times have changed.

There is a lot that paved the way for the change we now see – the televised trial of Eichmann, Schindler’s List in cinemas around the world, survivors gathering in Israel for the first time – and the passage of time. But today, looking back, what I see is the tenacity of survivors who, in their retirement especially, were determined that the world would know what happened to them. In the years since they have been tireless in their efforts to affect change, and to ensure that the horrors of the past would never be forgotten.

Two young Jewish women wearing the yellow star in Paris. Wearing of the star was made compulsory in occupied France in 1942. (PHOTO: KEYSTONE-FRANCE/GAMMA-KEYSTONE VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Today, around the world, communities of all faiths and none, of all backgrounds, in countries who were once occupied by the Nazis and those who were not, will pause for a moment to remember the Holocaust. They will remember the horrors of the past, and they will commit to ensuring its legacy continues. Holocaust Memorial Day has become internationally recognised and integrated into calendars across the globe.

And today those survivors who were not heard for so many years are in the spotlight. Their stories are being told, their voices are being heard, and their legacy is being cemented.

That is not to say that our work is done. Antisemitism continues to be an issue globally. Holocaust distortion continues to grow more prevalent, whether in the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic, in social media ‘jokes’, or in the comparisons of Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto. There is a huge amount of work to be done to ensure that the hatred that led to the Holocaust is understood and addressed, and that the integrity and truth of the past is preserved.

Elie Wiesel once said that to forget the dead is akin to killing them a second time. Today on Holocaust Memorial Day, they are not forgotten.

About the writer:

Karen Pollock CBE, Chief Executive, Holocaust Educational Trust. She started her professional life working for the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism (PCAA), where she became Director. She joined the Holocaust Educational Trust as Communications Director in 1998 and became the Trust’s Chief Executive in 2000. She was a founding Trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and is a member of the Council of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust Council at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. She is a Vice President of the Jewish Leadership Council, a trustee of the Community Security Trust and an Advisor to the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation. In 2012 Karen was awarded an MBE for her services to education in the UK. In 2020, she was awarded a CBE for services to Holocaust education.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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