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History lessons: then, now and forever

JeremyBeecham.jpgJeremy Beecham on the importance of memories – individual and collective – on Holocaust Memorial Day

70 years ago this week Russian soldiers entered Auschwitz, the killing ground where more than a million men, women and children were slaughtered. Alongside the Jewish victims, who were in the great majority, Roma, Poles and homosexuals also suffered. In total, six million Jews – a million of them children – perished in the worst act of genocide the world has seen.

It might be thought that this monstrous demonstration of the evil that man can inflict on his fellow man would have provoked a deep-seated revulsion, profound enough to ensure that such barbarity would not recur. Yet it has: 21 years ago in Rwanda, 20 years ago in Srebrenica, more recently in Darfur, and today when a perverted version of Islam leads to the killing in the Middle East and Nigeria of those who do not subscribe to what is a travesty of the faith that most Muslims share.

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is memory, and there is much to help us remember in my home city. Newcastle’s West End has long been a place to which people have come from afar. My great grandparents fled 120 years ago from persecution in Russia. They now lie in Elswick Cemetery on the boundary of the council ward that I represent. I sometimes wonder how many distant relatives of mine must have been victims of Hitler’s brutal campaign of extermination.

But now the West End is a place where others live who also fled discrimination, oppression, violence, and the threat of death. We have amongst us Roma from Eastern Europe and refugees from Africa and Asia seeking a new life, free from fear. Their presence here reminds us that inhumanity, fear and hatred of the other lives on after, and in spite of the Holocaust.

I have just read a book about the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess and the German Jewish officer serving in the British Army who tracked him down and brought him to justice. Within it, there is a compelling quotation from the American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials:

“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish … have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated”.

But alas, albeit on a smaller scale and by different means, they have been repeated. Moreover they could only have been repeated with the participation of ordinary men, in the phrase which forms the title of a book whose author, Christopher Browning I heard speak last week in London. That book, which I read some years ago, tells the story of a police battalion – ordinary, often middle aged officers, not soldiers or SS – who hunted and shot thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe. What is chilling is that most of them were not fanatical Nazis or men of a violent disposition. Yet they did unspeakable things, despite the fact that no punishment was inflicted on the small minority who declined to join the killing.

That is another memory we have to keep, and from which we must both learn and teach. We all have an individual responsibility to uphold the dignity of our fellow men and women, whatever differences we may perceive about their identity or beliefs. And that memory must be passed on to each succeeding generation, to immunise them, if we can, from both active hatred and passive acquiescence in discrimination or worse.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham

Published 27th January 2015

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