In this article, originally written for The Times Red Box, Karen Pollock MBE, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust questions why we still have to explain what the Holocaust was.
How has it come to this? Having to battle spurious claims about Hitler being an avid Zionist; having to explain to “veteran anti-racists” that antisemitism was at the heart of the Holocaust?
How is it that in 2016 I find myself writing an article explaining what the Holocaust was?
In April 1945, just after Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated by British forces, the reality of the Holocaust was broadcast into homes for the first time by Richard Dimbleby.
What he described defied belief but his powerful words were a heart-rending reflection of the infamous images that still come to mind when we think about this defining episode in history: disease so rife that soldiers needed to be constantly disinfected; the stench of death everywhere; the decaying piles of bodies; the skeletal near-corpses walking aimlessly, barely alive.
And they were the “lucky” ones — the ones who made it out alive.
The Holocaust was the systematic murder of six million Jewish men, women and children by the Nazis and their collaborators. Jews across Europe were targeted mercilessly by the Nazis under the cover of the Second World War in an attempt to cleanse the continent of what they believed to be a subhuman race who infected all they touched.
Millions of Jews were sent to their death, poisoned by gas and burned in ovens. Men and women were shot into graves they dug for themselves. More than a million children were ruthlessly murdered. An entire generation was lost.
Communities were irrevocably destroyed and language and culture virtually wiped from history. Families were decimated and torn apart.
Nazi ideology had antisemitism at its core from the outset. It was this ideology, as well as the desire to murder Jews wherever they were to be found and the specific mechanisms of their persecution, that made the attempted destruction of European Jewry so distinct. This was the Holocaust.
Today, Jewish people still reel from this grief and loss.
Now, to be clear, Jews were not the only group deemed inferior to the Aryan race. The Nazis targeted Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, the disabled, political dissidents and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
People of many nationalities and ethnicities suffered greatly and all should be remembered and we teach about them as a core part of education about this period of history.
But it does the memory of these groups a disservice to lump them all together under the umbrella of “the Holocaust”. The characteristics of their persecution were distinct from each other — and from the particular targeting, dehumanisation and pan-European murder of Jews.
Our job is to educate, raise awareness and remember — for the sake of those who were murdered and for those who survived, and as a warning as to what can happen when antisemitism and prejudice is left unchecked.
So, it is OK if out of ignorance someone says something offensive; we will educate them.
However, if they have been told why they have caused offence, and rather than seeking to understand, they claim foul play on the part of the accuser and continue with calculated intent to provoke, we must call this out for what it is: antisemitism.
When people ask “but what about all the other Holocausts and their victims?” it could be a mistake but often it is not.
We must be careful not to trivialise other historical or current events by attempting to weld them on to another tragedy. Each genocide since the Holocaust has its own history and legacy and deserves to be remembered as such.
Beyond this, though, why can’t we simply remember the murder of six million Jews as a tragedy in its own right? Why can’t we move away from thinking that the commemoration of one is to the detriment of another?
We shouldn’t have to explain that there is only one Holocaust and it had antisemitism at its heart.
Recent comments about “Holocausts” by Jackie Walker, vice-chairwoman of the Labour campaign movement Momentum, disregard the singular nature of the Holocaust and the particular hatred that motivated it.
This risks depriving the Jewish community of owning the pain that is still viscerally felt more than 70 years since the liberation of the camps.
Unbelievably, it could even deprive them of the very word that describes the tragedy that befell their ancestors. How on earth has it come to this?
This article was originally written for The Times Red Box.