The Remembrance Day event, held at the White Rock Theatre, on Saturday 28th January, was very moving and well-attended with dancers from both the Acromax Performance Group and St Richard’s Catholic College in Bexhill, as well as some beautiful and haunting singing from St Richard’s choir and the Bader College Chamber Choir, (based at Queens’ University (Canada) campus in Herstmonceux). It was the first time the service has been organised as a physical event since 2020, because of the pandemic, and I was delighted to speak in person rather than virtually. The service was organised by Dr Shelley Katz with the support of Hastings Borough Council. Below is my speech.
Just before Christmas, my husband and I visited the ‘Seeing Auschwitz’ exhibition in London - an exhibition of 100 photographs, sketches and testimonies, each one providing us with an understanding of the people and scenes that occurred inside Auschwitz, and the Holocaust.
Providing unassailable evidence of the atrocities committed at the largest German Nazi extermination camp of World War II.
Over 1.1 million men, women and children were murdered at Auschwitz. The SS tried to destroy evidence of the atrocities committed at the camp but the legacy of their crimes endured. The photographs of ‘Seeing Auschwitz’ showed the arrival of deportees, portraits of prisoners - the look in their eyes – and how for the camp officials, it was just ordinary everyday life, with Nazi wives and children, enjoying sitting in deck chairs, playing in the sunshine close by.
We both found this not only a profoundly insightful experience, but emotive and crushing. It is quite incomprehensible to believe, or understand why, human beings behaved in the way the Nazis did. But they did.
And we still see alarming evidence of persecution in this world today.
Why do we – why should we - remember the Holocaust? January 27th is the anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and is the day designated by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Observed at the UN headquarters and in countries throughout the world, this Day remembers the millions of people killed in the Holocaust, Nazi persecution and in the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
It is hard to grasp that these terrible crimes happened half-way through the century in which, I suspect, most of us here were born. I was born in 1968, just 23 years after the end of the war. 23 years ago was the Millenium. 23 years does not seem that long ago. In 23 years’ time, I will be nearing 80. Will the world still remember the Holocaust? It must. We must never forget, and it is vital that every generation is taught about the horrors that mankind is capable of.
To remember, never again.
The stark horror of the Holocaust is simply shocking. It was the calculated, systematic annihilation of a people; a complete collapse of humanity. Whilst it was horrific to see the evidence of this at the exhibition, we cannot turn away from the truth because genocide does not just happen. It happens when ordinary people like us, like you and me, engage in discrimination, racism and hatred which is unchecked over a period of time.
From the time the Nazis assumed power in Germany in 1933, they used propaganda, persecution and legislation to deny human and civil rights to German Jews. Following the outbreak of the second world war and Germany’s invasion and occupation of Poland, the Nazis subjected around two million Polish Jews to violence and forced labour.
Thousands of Jewish people were murdered in the first months of the occupation. Shortly after the occupation, Polish Jews were confined to particular neighbourhoods that came to be known as ‘ghettos’. Living conditions in these ghettos were appalling—a deliberate attempt by the Nazis to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people. This approach was repeated across Eastern Europe in other countries occupied by the Nazis.
The final solution to the Jewish problem’ began in 1941 and the first extermination camp, Chelmno in Poland, was established.
I think one of the most damning aspects of the Holocaust to me is to do with indifference – looking away. The indifference of Germany itself and her peoples, and the indifference of many countries to the plight of Jewish people. It is hard, sometimes terrifying, to take a stand in the face of power, especially brutal power, but there were people – ordinary people – ordinary men, women and children who did. Ordinary people who showed extraordinary bravery and compassion, who opened their hearts and their homes and provided safe havens for the victims, a hiding place, food and kindness. Ordinary people who provided light in the darkness.
‘Ordinary People’ is the theme for this years Holocaust Memorial Day. What is an ordinary person? People just like us. Bad things happen in this world and every time we witness bad things happening, we see the good of humanity, the courage of ordinary people steadfast in the face of injustice, intimidation, tyranny, persecution.
The warning signs of prejudice and intolerance - of anti-semitism - are here today and as ordinary people going about our daily lives, we must not be indifferent, we must not turn away.