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On listening: how Holocaust Memorial Day challenges us all to be witnesses

On listening: how Holocaust Memorial Day challenges us all to be witnesses

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day Rob Thompson considers why the most powerful act of remembrance is often through listening. 27/01/2019

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Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, once said, “When we listen to a witness, we become a witness.”  

27th January is Holocaust Memorial Day. It marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops, an opportunity to remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. 

We also remember the millions of others murdered: Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, the differently–abled, Jehovah Witnesses, political opponents, and others. We remember all those who have been killed in subsequent genocides since the Holocaust: in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. 

We remember. But why and how?   

In responding to Holocaust Memorial Day our most powerful act of remembrance is often through listening.  

Listening to survivors’ testimony of the Holocaust can take many forms. There are large online film archives available, such as those held by Yad Vashem or the USC Shoah Foundation. There are even more testimonies available in written form, in books or those collected by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.  

Even when we are reading testimony we should also be listening. When many of us engage with news by scrolling through our Twitter feed, there is a danger that we are losing the art of the long–read, and the difference that can be made by engaging with a story for a significant period of time. Whenever we engage with testimony we should try to deeply listen, not just seize a snapshot, but commit that story to our own memory and hold it for the future so that others may listen too. 

If we are privileged enough to have the opportunity, we can also listen to survivors in person. Recently I was in Manchester for a special Holocaust Memorial Day event organised jointly by the Council of Christians and Jews and the Fed, the social care charity for the Jewish community of Manchester.  

The Fed conduct a wonderful project called My Voice, which, as part of the social care it provides, enables Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees to tell their stories. In offering a space for human story, recounted through a survivor’s own words, the project enables these truths, these lived realities, to be shared and preserved for the future.   

Listening to testimony is moving and powerful. It is also, in itself, a radical act. To really listen – to truthfully engage with the lived experience of one human being in the most acute circumstances – is to cherish that person’s story for the future. A world that has not listened properly can easily forget, and the danger is not simply that we repeat past mistakes, but that we will be so dismissive of other people’s memories that we lack the capacity to attend to the needs of people here and now. We must listen to witnesses and we must listen to each other.  

There is a tension between scholars over whether the purpose of Holocaust education should be simply to learn about history in and of itself, or whether it should promote particular lessons to be learned in the contemporary world. This debate is perhaps misplaced.  

There are few things more important to our future than the way we witness to the past. Holocaust Memorial Day challenges us to a simple but profound task: to listen. In doing so we will not only respect history, but in our listening we will become witnesses ourselves. Witnesses for both memory and our own opportunity to change the world for the future. 

Image of the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, by Chaosdna available via Wikimedia Commons. 

Rob Thompson

Rob Thompson

Rob Thompson is Senior Programme Manager at the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) where he leads CCJ’s Holocaust education. Rob has a BA in History and Politics from the University of Oxford and is studying part–time for an MA in Jewish History and Culture at the University of Southampton. In 2018 Rob was awarded a ‘21 for 21’ award in recognition of his contribution to interfaith and Holocaust education.

Watch, listen to or read more from Rob Thompson

Posted 26 January 2019

Ethics, History, Judaism, Religion, Trauma


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