Holocaust survivors have returned to Auschwitz to lay wreaths to commemorate the 1.1 million people who died there during the second world war.
Ninety percent of those murdered at Auschwitz were Jewish.
This year Holocaust Memorial Day marked 75 years since the mass murder camp was liberated by Soviet troops and 7,000 prisoners were freed. However, almost half of these people would die as they were too ill, starving or exhausted to survive.
Ahead of the liberation, the Nazis blew up the last of the furnaces/gas chambers they had used so monstrously at Auschwitz. They then moved 60,000 prisoners westwards to other camps. Many of them died on these Death Marches. The Nazis knew that the arrival of the Russian Army was imminent and were trying to destroy evidence of their heinous crimes.
Last night I watched the UK Holocaust Memorial Day commemorative ceremony which took place at Westminster Abbey and was televised.
No matter how many times I read or hear about the atrocities that occurred during the holocaust I cannot comprehend how people could commit such evil deeds. And it is right that I cannot understand. No one who loves their fellow man ever could.
Survivors now are in small numbers. But last night I watched and listened as some of them who were able to attend the service spoke so movingly. One particular reading from a Second World War Veteran broke my heart. He spoke about a young boy of eleven years old who arrived at the camp, was separated from his family and left amongst unknown prisoners in that most terrible place. One night, he lay in a bunk with only a stranger’s feet to cuddle. In the morning it was found he had died in the night. As a mother and a grandmother, hearing this was almost too hard to listen to and the tears poured down my cheeks. But how could those who witnessed losses such as this cope with such unimaginable pain? We cannot know of all the individual suffering, the desperate fear and hardships, the hunger and illness, the waking and wondering if this would be the last day they would glimpse the sky.
Today, I CAN go outside, I CAN look up and glimpse the sky. I can breath the fresh air, smell the newly mown grass. But I can’t guarantee life will be like this forever. I can be hopeful and even assume I will be able to live out my days in safety, without fear of invasion or worse. But how can we know for sure? Nobody really knows what developments could be around the corner.
We have to rely on our memories so that we can try and protect our world and question our leaders. Just because we have supposedly intelligent leaders it doesn’t mean they always get things right as we all know. But what is memory? It is an empathetic mingling with other people’s stories, where you allow their stories to affect you in such a way that you are changed; your mind , your heart, your nervous system. You are changed in such a way that you cannot ignore the suffering of others. And because you cannot ignore the suffering of others, both from the past and in the present day, you can learn to educate people in a positive way.
Time and time again, when hearing the stories from survivors, their pleas are that we move forward but that we never forget. No matter how hard it is to be reminded of man’s inhumanity to man, and even writing about it is hard, we must never forget. Yet in the Jewish tradition, mourning death really takes place in the service of choosing and celebrating life. There is a place for mourning and grief and a place for encountering dark places in history, but that place always returns to life – that is human nature – what we do to celebrate life helps ourselves and helps others. We need to think about how we can make the world a better place for today. Our lives are better made up of the small things that really are the big things – being free to watch the sunset, dance in the rain, to bake a cake, to laugh out loud. Life is made of moments and choices we share with our beautiful families, our friends and communities. We need to make our choices good choices.
I have never met any holocaust survivors but I have listened to many of them being interviewed and listened to many telling their own individual stories. It seems to me that there is a strong thread that connects them. They have encountered unimaginable evil, they had walked through the valley of the shadow of death, yet they have had an incredibly tenacious hold on life.
As people who have seen the dark side of humanity they are an example of the human spirit’s ability to adapt, rebuild and recover.
So if any of us encounter dark or traumatic times, we can learn to keep going, to draw a sense of hope when all seems bleak, and reach out to those who need us. Most of all, we can remember, and comfort those who are alone.