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January 1945. Heavy snow and howling winds do nothing to halt the relentless advance of the Red Army. Four divisions are sent to encircle and capture a Nazi military installation near the industrial town of Oświęcim in Southern Poland. They met no resistance, and the complexes were secured within hours. However, Lieutenant Ivan Martynushkin, a hardened veteran of the brutal eastern front, was perturbed by what he found. Expecting a Nazi ambush, he was astonished to find the sick, elderly and weak waiting for him. He found children and infants in the buildings, huddling for warmth in the biting cold – their faces gaunt and eyes terrified. Something was wrong. Only later did he learn that the most disturbing thing was what he didn’t find – the one million corpses burnt into the ash that he and his troops had marched on.
Lieutenant Martynushkin had liberated Auschwitz.
This year marked 75 years since this event, but its significance has not wavered over the years. It’s more important now than ever to continue to face this with openness and honesty.
Genocide. Man’s most unworthy creation. No one wants to think about it, let alone confront it. Nevertheless, if we want to do justice for the victims of genocide, the continued education of people about atrocities becomes ever more essential as those who have lived through the events pass on. Holocaust memorial day serves as a grim reminder of what happens when such things are left unchecked.
Taking a stand
When asked about what the individual can do to deal with hatred, Dr Leslie de Vries, whose grandfather was imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp, emphasised the importance of telling the stories. He reminds students that “it’s not easy to do, but we need to”. If we can consistently remind ourselves to of the consequences of leaving intolerance unchecked, we can find the courage to stand up to it in its most minimal form.
Words are things we use every day but rarely do we put serious thought into their significance. We all view the world through our individual lens, and we say the things we do through the filter of our personal experience. It’s very easy for someone to say something that seems perfectly harmless to them but causes offence for others. When this does happen, it’s we must open a discussion about it and deal with it in a non-confrontational manner. Through this, we can build more mutual understanding into our society. Not all of us have the time or courage to stand up to society’s systemic discrimination as activists, but all of us can work to build a dialogue surrounding our differences.
In recent years, disturbing reports have emerged from China regarding the treatment of the Uighur people. Reports suggest wide-scale imprisonment, indoctrination and callous brutality. It is estimated that 100,000 Uighurs are currently being held in these “voluntary re-education centres”. These reports are disturbingly similar to those conducted into the treatment of the Holocaust’s victims between 1933 and 1945.
As horrific as this may be, we can’t directly challenge the Chinese government on this, and they deny any sort of mistreatment anyway. However, we can make small differences by boycotting Chinese brands and avoiding companies that outsource work to China. It isn’t much, but it’s still a little difference that all of us can make.
Another responsibility we all have is to challenge the narrative purported by holocaust deniers. Often associated with anti-Semitic groups, holocaust deniers claim that extermination was never a part of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution, that there was no employment of extermination camps for mass-murder, or that the number of victims of the Holocaust was much lower than the widely accepted figure of six million.
It’s nothing short of a conspiracy theory, put forward by those who believe that the genocide of millions of innocent men, women and children was an elaborately crafted hoax to advantage Jews. Somehow, it feels stupid even just writing it out. However, just because it’s a ridiculous theory, doesn’t mean it is any less of an assault on truth and the memory of the Holocaust’s victims. Those who refuse to acknowledge and learn from genocide are just as guilty as those who perpetrate it.
The fight against Holocaust deniers has changed. The internet allows them to operate anonymously and can reach a wider audience than ever before – it’s never been so easy to spread lies. Rather than the pseudo-academic approach that has previously characterised Holocaust denial – with the likes of disgraced historian David Irving – internet anti-Semitism acts much less overtly.
Hiding behind computer screens, anti-Semites deliberately blur the line between dark humour and overt racism to push their narrative. The anonymity prevents this new style of Holocaust denial being targeted by traditional laws against it, so we must challenge deniers wherever and whenever they emerge. Whether on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – whatever platform they use to spread hate – we can all challenge this wave of anti-Semitism.
Acknowledging the victims
Emma Sampson, President of UKC’s Jewish society offered some advice to students who wished to make a difference by fighting hatred and genocide.
She outlined the need to fight Holocaust denial, encouraging all students to “carry on speaking the truth, carry on telling survivor’s stories, to make sure people don’t forget.” That’s all we can do, we can’t undo or atone for genocide, but we can do everything in our power to prevent intolerance of any kind.
Emma believes it’s a necessity to confront the past every year to learn from it. She wants to believe that we have learned from the Holocaust but is quick to point out the alarming number of genocides that have taken place since. Emma stressed the importance of avoiding hateful narratives. She reminds us that the Holocaust didn’t begin as genocide but was a gradual escalation of a hateful narrative to the point of extermination.
“I think people often forget it wasn’t that long ago”, Emma continues, “there are so many people out there with family and friends that never made it”. The scars still run deep; communities affected by the Holocaust are still reeling from it. The best we can do for them is to make conscious and continued effort to respectfully acknowledge the tragedy they have endured and prevent anything similar from ever happening again.
Building a future
The awful thing about the past is that there’s nothing we can do to change it. No matter how much we might wish to undo our transgressions – no matter what we do to hide them – they will always remain. Every action or inaction is irrevocably permanent.
However, this isn’t a condemnation – it’s an opportunity to do better.
We have the power to act with the hard lessons of the past in our minds. The fight against hatred is far from won – it probably never will be – but that doesn’t mean we give up. It’s easy to feel powerless against a society that so unwilling to learn from its mistakes but innate in each of us is the potential to change the future. Every great movement is driven by the will of thousands of people from all walks of life taking a stand. This fight is no different.
We can’t change the past, but together, we can build a better future.