How we connect the history and meaning of the Holocaust to other events and processes is in many ways the defining argument in the field today. Whether in academic circles – witness the German Catechism debate last year – or in the hurly-burly of Twitter, how far the Holocaust can act as a comparison or analogue to other things is constantly under review. In the latter environment, amid a stream of careless allusion and under-considered rhetoric, the devaluation of Holocaust imagery and symbols by those opposed to vaccinations and lockdowns has led many people to the adamantine belief that the only thing to which the Holocaust can be compared to is itself. Others meanwhile insist that the Holocaust is losing relevance or significance and should be spoken of in relation to other things: for example, to the crimes committed by colonial empires.
When working with students on dissertation projects, I often compare the process of research to selecting a lens in photography. Do I wish to look at the Holocaust in the fine grain of detail, requiring a narrow and intense focus? Or do I wish to situate the Holocaust in the context of other genocides and abuses of human rights, requiring a wide-angle lens? The problem of course being that either course has advantages and disadvantages. We might speak of a kind of uncertainty principle, in which the specific quality of the Holocaust appears most clearly when it occludes the broader significance, and vice versa: some of the texture of the Holocaust’s singularity is smoothed out by distance when thinking about how it relates to other things.
Keeping these things in balance is a constant challenge, and a worthy kind of memorial in itself. An event as complex and challenging should not be reduced to bromides or platitudes. Passionate argument and discussion about the best and most fitting way to remember this event indicates that it is still relevant. The challenge of relating it to the terrible colonial legacies of European civilisation in a way that preserves the significance of both. The challenge of recognising how ways of thinking about gender and sexuality were part of the poisonous brew of festering assumptions that boiled over in 1930s Germany. The challenge of recognising that attitudes to Roma and Travellers have barely evolved since the 1930s. Above all, perhaps, the challenge of seeing that the Holocaust was only possible because the countries of Europe all, to varying degrees, facilitated, encouraged, or even just tolerated the persecution of Jews because of an underlying antisemitism that seems less dormant with each passing day. The attack on Congregation Beth El in Colleyville, Texas, remember, was carried out by a man from Britain. Just last night, two Jewish men in Stamford Hill were attacked, out of the blue. The Community Security Trust recorded more antisemitic incidents in the first six months of 2021 than in any comparable period since 2013.
Wiseacres on social media might suggest that it’s a little churlish of me to raise this kind of argument on Holocaust Memorial Day. They might disingenuously imply that Holocaust Memorial Day places the genocide of Jews on a pedestal, drawing the gaze from present-day situations that they see as equivalent. Of course, they would have to ignore the way in which from its inception HMD has sought to provide knowledge and understanding of subsequent genocides. Across the country, survivors from Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Darfur and many other places share their stories and experiences with those who will listen. There are events tonight with representatives of the Uyghur, who are being persecuted in terrible ways in China.
And the survivors of the Holocaust know that their lesson is general, not particular. I had the privilege today to facilitate (on behalf of the Holocaust Educational Trust) the testimony of Freddy Berdach, who escaped Austria in 1938 with his parents. He spoke of how the atmosphere was filled with fear after the Anschluss as crowds of jeering, laughing, spitting Viennese dragged men and women onto the streets. He described how, aged just eight, he became expert in the intricacies of immigration to particular countries – though he still believed that they were safe the moment they stepped on a train to Switzerland, an impression corrected when a fellow passenger revealed his party badge and insisted on strip-searching him. Yet he ended on a note of hope, with an appeal to the general, not the particular. “The Holocaust,” he said, “must become a cultural code for education towards human rights and democracy, for tolerance, and opposition to racism.” It was decided in 2000 to call the day Holocaust Memorial Day over the objections of survivors, who were concerned that they might be accused of demanding special consideration: organsisers argued that the popular recognition of the Holocaust as a paradigmatic genocide would ensure that audiences were given an accessible cognitive framework for learning about other events, in different places and at different times. For survivors, it is always a balance between telling their story – as Lamentations puts it, “[to] weep streams of tears […] because of the destruction of my people” and the knowledge that there is nothing to be done about the past, only the future. As Primo Levi said, “It happened, therefore it can happen again. This is the essence of what we have to say.”
The theme for HMD 2022, “One Day” is a challenging one in this regard, since it seems to draw the gaze to the particular. For the Holocaust was so much more than one day. Taking place across Europe and North Africa and over a period of twelve years, it encompassed days and moments beyond counting. The crux of the problem is that no “One Day” was quite like another, even for those who shared it. For some it was a day of survival, for others it was the end. To return to the metaphor of the camera, however; by thinking about one person on one day we can bring the meaning of the destruction into focus more clearly. For me, it will always be the faces of Israel and Zelig Jacob, photographed on their arrival in Birkenau, which will encapsulate the tragedy more sharply than any other. That one day was their last day – this photograph the only known image of them.
The real danger of memorial days is that they do all the work. Jacob Rees-Mogg today told the Commons that there would be no statement today on the report into Downing Street parties during lockdown since the government wanted to “devote the whole time to debating Holocaust Memorial Day.” I am sure I speak for many others when I say that while the memory of the Holocaust is something MPs should be concerned with, it should not be used as a way of blocking MPs from doing their jobs by holding the government to account. To use the memory of the Holocaust as a filibuster cheapens the democracy Freddy Berdach prizes so highly, as well as the experiences of those who survived.
This is because Holocaust Memorial Day is not – or should not be – a moment for navel-gazing. The Year 10 students listening to Freddy Berdach asked how they and others can continue to remember the Holocaust. As I explained to them, I chose not to ask Freddy this question. Not because I don’t think he would have an answer – I’m sure his remarkable mind and soul would have something to say – but because I don’t think the question of what the Holocaust will mean is really his problem any more – it’s ours. The students spent the last half hour before the end of the day writing to Freddy about how they are going to take what they have heard forward. For it is not today that is most important, nor yesterday, but tomorrow. That is the one day that really counts. For joy cometh in the morning, if only we are there to see it.