Remember the Holocaust?

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If you are in Pakistan then probably not. The Holocaust? Yes, it was a genocide (there have been others before and since) that happened during World War 2 during which Nazi Germany murdered around six million European Jews in an effort to exterminate them completely.

This was part of an even larger and often forgotten event that included the murder of Roma, the incurably sick including those with mental handicaps, ethnic Poles and Slavs generally, Russians, assorted political opponents, gay men and Jehovahs Witnesses. Around 17 million died in all, but it is the Jews that concern us today.

The murder of the Jews was systematic, well documented and meticulously planned. Millions were simply worked and starved to death, other millions died in gas chambers in extermination camps spread across Poland and eastern Germany.

These horrors were exposed by advancing troops as the war came to an end, and the images that emerged on to the cinema screens of the day were shocking in the extreme. How could otherwise ordinary men and women commit such acts of barbarity on such a scale? And do that believing they were right to do so? After all the Germans were not a race of alien monsters, universally evil beings – yet they committed one of the wickedest crimes humanity has ever seen given its scale.

I have visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in southern Poland. One of the most excoriating experiences of my life. The Holocaust – or Shoah – became one of the defining features of the last century.

It is now 74 years since the war ended, survivors of the Holocaust are fewer by the year and in a decade or less it will have passed from living memory. It will have become history – it already was, but differently – and its remembrance and lessons are already beginning to fade.

Growing up and being educated in England  in the 50’s and 60’s my recollection of ‘history’ as in a taught subject was largely encompassed by ‘1066 and all that’ – events following the Norman invasion and more or less ending at the reign of Queen Victoria. One of my schools offered economic history as an option which I took, but nowhere was there any mention that I recall of The Holocaust.

Sunday 27th January 2019 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, designated by the UN in 2005. The date is that on which the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was liberated. Its purpose is to serve as a date for official commemoration for the victims and to promote Holocaust education worldwide.

The UN resolution contains a clause that says it will counter any denial of the Holocaust – there are those that believe that either it did not happen on the scale that it did or in some cases believe it to be a fiction.  Further, and here comes the local relevance, the resolution condemns all forms of ‘religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origins or religious belief’ throughout the world. Ring any bells?

Pakistan did not exist when the Holocaust was unfolding, and there will be no memory personal or institutional here – but there are history books and schools. There has never been a large Jewish community in Pakistan and those few that were here were hounded out and persecuted in ways that suggest that conceptually genocide may be at the forefront of some minds.

It is no coincidence that I have seen, and photographed, Urdu translations of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ in the largest bookshop in the country located in Islamabad. There is a deeply embedded thread of anti-Semitism nationally that has no countervailing narrative, certainly as far as the national curriculum is concerned.

Be that as it may, things are not that much better in the school attended by my own daughter in Preston, UK. There was a remarkably effective remembrance of the end of World War 1 last November, and she and her classmates had a moving and memorable experience, history became live for them and had a relevance to today’s world, her world that she is growing up in. But the Holocaust passed by. In England.

The foundations of the Holocaust lay in intolerance, fear of ‘the other’, the demonisation of both an Abrahamic faith and its adherents and the creation of a belief that there were ‘subhumans’ – untermensch – whose lives were valued less and who were disposable, expendable to the point of extinction.

The seeds of genocide are no less present than they were in Germany in the 20’s and 30’s of the last century and they have germinated across most continents from time to time since, with some genocides still in process. A recent news report was about a Pakistani Jew who had been given a passport. The last Jew in the country? I do not know, but if he has sought a passport he may have decided not to stick around. Good move.