Holocaust Memorial Day is an annual international day of remembrance, held on the 27th of January. The date marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp and since 2005 serves as the official commemoration of the six million Jewish genocide victims. The Memorial Day endeavours to promote Holocaust and genocide education; remembering and learning about the persecution of people around the world, throughout time. Every year in the UK educational institutions, workplaces, faith groups and local authorities complete thousands of activities to bring people of all backgrounds together to reflect and honour those who have suffered from oppression. The theme for the 2022 Holocaust Memorial Day is “One Day”, ‘in the hope that there may be one day in the future with no genocide.’
The word ‘holocaust’ originates from the ancient Greek meaning for ‘burnt offering’ and was sometimes used before the Second World War to describe the death of a large group of people. However, since 1945, it has become synonymous with the murder of Jews under the Nazi dictatorship. Although the direct cause of the Holocaust was the anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, for hundreds of years, European Jews had been subject to discrimination and maltreatment; they were held responsible for the death of Christ and in the Middle Ages, they were forced to live segregated from the rest of the community. During times of crisis such as the Black Death they were often singled out as scapegoats. In 1290 Jewish people were expelled from England by Edward I and were not allowed to return until over 350 years later by Oliver Cromwell.
After the German defeat in the First World War, right-wing extremists blamed social and ethnic groups for the loss, including the Jews who they accused of being capitalist exploiters or conversely, as supporters of the Communist Revolution. Adolf Hitler’s hatred for Jews was evident from his early speeches and semi-autobiographical book, Mein Kampf, however, it was only after he was appointed Chancellor in 1933 that life in Germany became increasingly impossible for those of Jewish heritage. The Nuremberg Racial Laws introduced in 1935 forbade them from marrying non-Jews and they lost their citizenship, officially turning them into second-class citizens. In November 1938, the Nazi’s organised the Kristallnacht, a night in which Jewish houses, synagogues, and shops were destroyed whilst thousands of Jewish people were captured and later imprisoned in concentration camps. In the middle of 1942, the Germans began deporting Jews from the occupied territories in Western Europe to Eastern Europe in overcrowded cattle wagons. Over a million people had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was established in the spring of 1940. Located in southern Poland, Auschwitz was both a labour and extermination camp, a programme often referred to as ‘extermination through labour’. The Jews who had survived a selection process based on age, health and ability to work, had to do forced labour in difficult and unhygienic conditions, on little nourishment. In January 1945, Auschwitz was overrun by Russian soldiers and although it was the largest concentration camp, upon liberation, only a few thousand Jews remained. In 1980, Georgii Elisavetskii, a Red Army soldier, recalled the reaction of the Auschwitz survivors on the day of their liberation –
“They rushed toward us shouting, fell on their knees, kissed the flaps of our overcoats, and threw their arms around our legs”
Anti-Semitism persisted in parts of Europe and the destruction of Jewish communities during the Holocaust made survivors fearful to return to their homes. Many found themselves homeless and migrated to the territories liberated by the Allies, where they were housed in displaced person camps and refugee centres.
The UK Ceremony for Holocaust Memorial Day 2022 is being streamed online next Thursday at 7 pm. The link below will redirect you to a page where you can register to watch the Ceremony.