This week, the Jewish community marked Yom HaShoah, a day for remembrance of the Holocaust. Holocaust Educational Trust Chief Executive Karen Pollock MBE reflected on why this day is so important in a comment piece published in the Jewish Chronicle.
“I only wish to be remembered, I wish my wife to be remembered, Gele Seksztajn. I wish my little daughter to be remembered. Margalit is 20 months old today.”
These are the words of Israel Lichtensztajn. Israel died during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began 72 years ago this week. His writings are part of what we have come to know as the Oneg Shabbat archive; the work of a brave group of people who, having realised they would not survive the war, decided to collect and bury as much as they could to attest to the horrors of the Nazis and bear witness for future generations.
I was reminded of his words recently, when asked by a journalist why we have two days of memorial for the Holocaust - one for the Jewish community, (Yom HaShoah) and one observed more widely (Holocaust Memorial Day). It is an important question and one which I think we all have a responsibility to consider.
Yom HaShoah was inaugurated in Israel in 1953, just five years after the establishment of the State of Israel and very much against the backdrop of a new nation still reeling from the loss and displacement of the Holocaust. Since then it has grown into a day commemorated by Jewish communities around the world.
On 27th January 2001, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, this country held its first ever national Holocaust Memorial Day – a day which has also gone from strength to strength and which I am immensely proud to have been a part of since its inception. It came about as a direct response to the question: there is a Jewish day to remember, but what about everyone else? There was a sense that Holocaust Memorial Day would provide an opportunity for people from all backgrounds, of all ages, to come together and remember.
For most Jews, the Holocaust is something we grew up with. It is something we learn about at home, at school, through our youth movements. As a child, I remember walking past the home every day of a beautiful lady who had survived the Holocaust: Gena Turgel. The first book I read about the Holocaust was Judith Kerr’s ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’. And the lessons of the Holocaust were embedded in my upbringing: prejudice can lead to hatred, hatred to persecution, persecution to genocide.
The great power of a national Holocaust Memorial Day is that it permanently fixes the crimes of Nazi persecution into the national consciousness - yet for those of us for whom the Holocaust is already part of our very fabric, we need to go a step further. Of course it is right that we play a central role in the national commemorations to mark the Holocaust in Britain but we also need our own space to reflect on what the Holocaust means to us as Jews living in the 21st Century. Yom HaShoah is partly a day to mourn and expound our collective sense of sadness and loss, but also a chance for us to unite in our survival. Millions of our people were murdered, hundreds of years of our history and culture were decimated, but here we are, standing proud and strong in our Jewish identity. This has a particular resonance today, when we are acutely aware that antisemitism, that age old plague, is on the rise in this country and elsewhere.
As we look ahead, we can see the landscape of Holocaust education and remembrance has, and is, changing - it is taking on new urgency and new vigour. The Government’s announcement of the new National Memorial and Learning Centre will ensure that the Holocaust has a lasting legacy in Britain. Long after the survivors are gone, and after we are gone, there will be a place here, in Britain, where people from all walks of life can pause and reflect on the Holocaust.
Now is also the time for us as a community to shape how our children and our grandchildren will consider the Holocaust. We must not be complacent. We must have a strong voice and lead the way, showcasing how and why we remember. The national commemoration for this year’s Yom HaShoah, which will take place this Sunday with thousands in attendance, is our opportunity to reflect on an episode that was a human catastrophe, but before anything else a Jewish tragedy. It was our parents, grandparents and great grandparents who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis and therefore it is only natural for us to assume a unique responsibility for their legacy.
In doing so, we honour the words of Israel Lichtensztajn, and ensure that the memory of his life and that of his wife, his daughter and 6 million Jewish men, women and children, will never fade.
Image courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw.