HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY 2023
Like every year, we meet again, in this place, around the Memorial, on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Twenty years have passed since the institution of the recurrence. The purpose was, and I am quoting from the HMT website, to “bear witness for those who endured genocide, and honour the survivors and all those whose lives were changed beyond recognition”. Holocaust Memorial Day is now an established date in the calendar.
And yet, there are questions we have to ask. Has British society become more aware of genocides that took place in faraway places, far from our sight? The website of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust mentions Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda… What the ordinary British citizen know about those horrors that have marked the history of those places? Are we calling to justice the murderers, their accomplices, and those who benefitted from the massacres?
At least people know what the Holocaust was. But the generations of survivors and witnesses are leaving us. Of so many crimes committed during the Holocaust, we still don’t know the responsible. They have managed to escape justice. Perpetrators found shelter, changed identity and led quiet lives somewhere. Perhaps in this Country, too. Simon Wiesenthal spent his entire life demanding, as he famously wrote, justice, not revenge. But justice has not been done.
So we approach Holocaust Memorial Day with sadness. Today everybody seems to care about the genocides, and everybody promises us solidarity and vigilance against antisemitism. Tomorrow no one will mention Darfour anymore. Bosnia will return to be the name of a place in the Balkans, and we will read that the Communist dictatorship in Cambodia was “complicated.” And we Jews will hear antisemitic hate speech poorly disguised as “criticism of Israel”. Less than one week ago, a report was released about antisemitism in the student’s union. It is a tragic reading. But the denial of antisemitism in British campuses is still rampant. Jews were murdered in Jerusalem two days ago, Friday, in front of a synagogue. But the media talk about “the Occupation”.
Worse than everything, the memory of the Holocaust is cheapened. The Holocaust, it has to be said, IS the most tragic, the most uncomprehensible event in human history. No other Country has wasted so many resources -in a time of war !- and with the purpose of annihilating a peaceful minority. Germany was losing the war, yet the trains to the Eastern front had to stop, wait for days, and give precedence to the carriages directed to Auschwitz. People were arrested in faraway places like Thessaloniki, put on cattle trains and carried thousands of miles away to be murdered in Poland. A waste of resources in a time of war. An entire nation turned into a genocide machine, both organised and nonsensical. It has never happened before. It never happened afterwards. It has no sense. It defies any logic. Even the cold cruel logic of colonialism and war does not explain such an absurdity.
And yet, when we Jews call attention to that dark page of human history, we face accusations of being racist and supremacist, aiming to privilege our dead, our victims, at the expense of victims of other tragedies. No other minority, no other victim of genocide, is ever accused of stealing the scene from other victims. But we Jews have to face this accusation literally every day. Even today, on Holocaust Memorial Day. Go on social media and tell.
And yet, we must remember. Despite the persistence of antisemitism, despite the ignorance about genocides documented at length, we have the duty to commemorate, we have the responsibility to speak out, and we must repeat, “It has happened. It can happen again” as Primo Levi did in his masterpiece “If this is a man”. We have this duty, even if no one is paying attention (but thankfully, someone does). If we concede to despair if we allow ourselves to think that humanity is lost, if we act as if there is no hope to learn from the past… Then we become like the Nazis, like the Khmer Rouge, like the religious fanatics in Darfur, like the thugs of Mladic and Karadzic. War criminals who have brainwashed their soldiers so that they murder civilians ethnically cleansed entire regions.
Those criminals had no faith in humanity. To the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis, humanity was corrupted by foreign capitalism and by the Jews. Not different are the ideologies of Islamic fanatism and of pan Slavic nationalism -as we see in Ukraine those days. The purpose of these criminals is to cleanse civilisation from the enemies, who they believe have corrupted humanity to the roots.
We cannot allow ourselves to follow the same logic and lower our morality to that level. We have to keep the memory alive, even if it seems pointless, although thankfully, there are sparkles of hope. The solidarity for the Ukrainian population we witness these days is just moving. It tells us that faith in humanity is still around and with us.
The Pirkei Avot, the collection of ethical teaching by the first generation of Rabbis, says, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it”. In this challenging situation, this should be our guiding principle. Not to neglect the duty to remember the tragedy, not to renounce calling attention to genocides. Never stop demanding justice.
The Sage whose this saying as attrIbuted is Rabbi Tarfon. He was known for his empathy and diplomatic skills, his talent to solve complex interpersonal relations as a mediator while keeping “the crown of a good name”, and his reputation for integrity. Moderation and integrity are what is missing today.
Polarisation and extremism make it very difficult for us to carry on the duty of remembrance. How can we talk about the Holocaust when we know that someone else, in front of a computer screen, will scream to us, “and what about Palestine?” And yet, even if it is so difficult, we should take inspiration from Rabbi Tarfon. We should not renounce speaking out, appealing to common humanity, with moderation and trust in our fellow human beings. We cannot allow ourselves to become like our enemies.
We Jews are a people that, in times of darkness, light the candles of hope -on Hanukah. We Jews are the people who, against the natural inclination to forget, light the candle of memory in honour of those who are not with us anymore. So do not despair, and keep the candle burning.
Holocaust Memorial Day 2023, Brighton