By Olivia Hennessy, BA History, Level 1
‘We will continue to do our bit for as long as we can, secure in the knowledge that others will continue to light a candle long after us’- Gena Turgel MBE, survivor of the Holocaust (1923-2018)
Every year on 27th January, individuals gather to remember the millions of people who were murdered in the Holocaust, under the Nazi regime with their collaborators, and the Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur genocides that followed. On this day in 1945, the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by Soviet soldiers, yet there were more camps to be liberated; the last camp, Stutthof, was liberated on 9th May 1945.
The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Be the Light in the Darkness’. This phrase leads us to consider the different forms of ‘darkness’ and ‘light’. The Darkness reflects mistreatment, misinformation, persecution, and denial. In contrast, ‘Being in the Light’ considers resistance, rescue, confronting denial, distortion and misinformation in the present, and Holocaust survivors who share their stories to generations like myself. This theme reflects both the past and the present, from perpetrators dividing societies and resistance to genocide denial and distortion and sharing survivor testimonies.
As an Ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust, the aim of this blog post is to share the knowledge of those who were involved and fell victim to the past and present atrocities; to make sure that history does not repeat itself.
‘Darkness Draws in’
Before and during Genocides, darkness is evident. Distortion and hate are portrayed in propaganda and stereotyping in the lead up to Genocide. This was used to divide a specific group into societies and victimise them. Radical anti-Semitism was especially used for propaganda posters, accusing Jews of plotting an international anti-German conspiracy and depicting them as the ‘Jewish enemy’ that must be exterminated. Other groups, such as the disabled, had similar treatment. For example, the Law for the “Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases”(1933) called for forced sterilisation to those who have physical and mental disabilities. In addition to this, the Third Reich used propaganda posters and labelled the disabled as “life unworthy of life” and “useless eaters”.
Emotional darkness is another example. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rough took power and destroyed homes, family, and faith, along with significant connections for people. Religion was abolished and children were taken from their parents. As the BBC addressed, the regime of the Khmer Rouge was ‘responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century’, claiming the lives of 2 million people.
‘Light during the Darkness’
During the periods of darkness, there has been those, who oppose the regime, risking their lives and maintaining their faith and culture as a form of resistance. The Jews themselves were resistance fighters in World War II and underground resistance networks who launched attacks and rescue missions. There is the persistence to the idea that the Jews in Europe did not fight back against the Nazi’s however there is evidence of Jewish resistance. Haviva Reik, for example, joined the parachutists’ unit, as part of the Haganah underground military organisation, and helped to engage in relief and rescue activities, such as facilitating the escape of Jewish children to Hungary.
Even the smallest amount of kindness lights the way through darkness. During the genocide in Bosnia, Safet Vukalic had support from the people in his community- the soldiers in the army, for example, brought him medication and food instead of torturing him like others would have done.
Even today, there is denial and distortions of genocides. Across the Bosnian society, there is widespread denial of the genocide that happened. Those in authority give the ‘untruths’ a lot of power: Milorad Dodik, the current president of Bosnia, called the genocide a ‘fabricated myth’; Mladen Grujicic, the current Mayor of Srebrenica, denies that the murder of Bosniak men and boys was genocide.
Another example is Holocaust denial: those who attempt to rehabilitate Nazism or have other motives. Recently, most of Europe criminalised this, but the changing media used by deniers has been a problem. Online propaganda from the Middle East has, over the years, encouraged far right in several countries to resume promoting denial. Historians and authors have publications reflecting their denial. Historical novelist David Irving, for example, was considered by Deborah Lipstadt as “one of the most dangerous spokesman for Holocaust denial.”
‘Being the Light in the Darkness today’
Hearing and sharing survivor testimonies has shed the light on the Holocaust and recent genocides. These have been painful for survivors to share, so their bravery and past will never be forgotten. Even in the present, there are modern atrocities happening. For example, the ongoing treatment of Uyghur Muslims. This must not be left unchallenged, so using our voices and increasing our knowledge will shine a light on the situation and address those who are responsible.
There are many ways to be the light in the darkness. It is important to educate others; previous generations, our generations and future generations about the atrocities that happened before, during and after these genocides. Researching modern atrocities is important to consider as well.
Erika Doss, ‘Anti-Semitism, Propaganda and Modernism’, in Aaron Rosen (ed.), In Focus: Orthodox Boys 1948 by Bernard Perlin, Tate Research Publication, 2016, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/orthodox-boys-bernard-perlin/anti-semitism-propaganda-modernism, accessed 2 January 2021.
BBC. Khmer Rouge: Cambodia’s Years of Brutality, 16th November 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-10684399 Accessed on 2nd January.
Jewish Virtual Library. ‘Haviva Reik’. Accessed on 2nd January, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/haviva-reik
Whine, Michael. ‘Expanding Holocaust Denial and Legislation Against It.’ Jewish Political Studies Review 20 (2008), 57-58.
Image by Ben Sutherland, ‘Candles lit in Chichester Cathedral’, 22nd September [online source] https://www.flickr.com/photos/bensutherland/6152778640/ accessed 18 January 2021.