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Holocaust Memorial Day – As Relevant As Ever

Holocaust Memorial Day – As Relevant As Ever

Guest writer Zaki Cooper reflects on what he has learned from the life of his wife’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. 25/01/2022

This Thursday is Holocaust Memorial Day and my mind will turn to my wife’s maternal grandmother, Raymonde Feuerwerker. She died six years ago and, whilst I only got to know “Mémé” late on in her life, her story was remarkable.

At the age of 12, sensing the danger for Jews in Vichy France, she was told by her mother to flee and tasked with the responsibility of looking after her two younger brothers: “You have two hands, one for each of your brothers. Never let go.” The three children were separated from their parents, who ended up being deported to Auschwitz and killed.

Over the next few months, Mémé shepherded her brothers and several other children to safety, eventually reaching the border with Switzerland. They had several close shaves on their perilous journey, but through a mixture of luck, a rabbi who helped them, and a precocious survival instinct, they managed to reach safety. After such a brutal experience, the fact she made a life for herself in Geneva, and had children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, was testament to her resilience and spirit. Her formative experiences would have broken many other survivors (as it sadly did).

The Holocaust was the systematic extermination of the Jewish people, along with other minority groups – gypsies, gay people, mentally and physically disabled people amongst them – by the Nazi Germany regime. Its evil was unfathomable. The Jews were targeted by the Nazis based on twisted “Aryan ideology” and blamed for the ills in society. Indeed, this month sees the 80th anniversary of the infamous Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942, where the Final Solution was decided. The scale of the Holocaust was unimaginable. To get a sense of it, on 9/11, 3,000 people were killed through acts of terrorism in the US. During the Holocaust, on average, 3,000 Jews were killed every day, every week, every month for five and a half years.

The Nazis did not invent antisemitism. It had a long and painful history, particularly in the Middle East and Europe, and the Church was often at the heart of it. As Christianity spread throughout the world, Jews in different countries were scapegoated and persecuted. This religion–based antisemitism led to the expulsion of the Jewish community from England in 1290, and across almost every European society where they lived. Similar evictions occurred in France in 1306 and 1394, Austria in 1421, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1497, and many parts of Germany between the 14th and 16th centuries. The Church in England invented the fictitious Blood Libel in Norwich in 1144, which became a stick with which to persecute and scapegoat Jews.

The late great former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, talked about antisemitism as a virus that mutates. It evolved from being religion–based to race–based, and the Nazis promulgated this dogma of hatred based on racial superiority. The scholar Jacob Neusner spoke of the dotted line between the historic antisemitism of the Churches and the Holocaust. As an example, the yellow star, which Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis, had a precursor hundreds of years earlier through the Catholic Church; the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 required Jews to wear a similar emblem to mark them out.

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD), the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russians in 1945, is not just for the Jewish community. On the contrary, the Jewish community has its own day of remembrance, Yom Hashoah, in the Jewish calendar. It is for the whole of society. It is to remember the Holocaust and other genocides such as those in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. It draws attention to important lessons, particularly for the younger generation. These include the power of hate speech to dehumanise, the dangers of scapegoating and the risks of being a bystander. Every year a theme is chosen by the organizers and this year’s is “One Day.”

We are fortunate to still have living in Britain (and elsewhere) some Holocaust survivors. They are the most admirable and inspirational people you could hope to meet. They have experienced the worst of humanity but are living their lives in a way that shows the best of humanity. There have been some very creative projects to promote their stories. This year, the Prince of Wales, who is very committed to Holocaust education (partly through the example of his grandmother who saved Jews in wartime Greece), has commissioned paintings of seven Holocaust survivors by leading artists. The paintings will be shown at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, and the story of the project told in a BBC Documentary. Furthermore, the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Nottinghamshire is developing 3D technology which will allow children to ask survivors lots of questions long after they’re gone (through recording stock answers to hundreds and hundreds of questions). One 98–year–old survivor of Auschwitz, Lily Ebert, has taken to TikTok, with the help of a great grandson, to reach a new generation with her story.

Notwithstanding these best efforts, ignorance about the Holocaust remains rife. One survey from two months ago showed that just over half of British people did not know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. A UCL study published last September revealed that most teachers did not know where or when the Holocaust began (although it did show there had been improvements since a similar study in 2009).

Over 75 years since the end of the Holocaust, antisemitism remains a persistent danger. Social media has given hatred a new platform, with an impressionable audience of millions at the click of a button. Depressingly, my children’s school and other Jewish schools need to have security guards outside. Visit any synagogue and you will see similar arrangements in place. Across the Atlantic, the recent incident in Texas, where a synagogue service was disrupted by a British terrorist shouting virulent antisemitism and holding people hostage, is a reminder of the contemporary danger. But if Mémé’s life taught us anything, it’s to keep going, to understand the perils of hatred but also look for the best in humanity. It’s that precious approach that we’ll hold on to as we mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day. 

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 Photo by Eelco Böhtlingk on Unsplash

Zaki Cooper

Zaki Cooper

Zaki Cooper is an inter–faith activist and a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews. Zaki worked for Rabbi Lord Sacks when Chief Rabbi as Head of External Relations, 2004 to 2006. A communications professional, he has worked at Buckingham Palace, and a range of corporate environments and is now co–founder of Integra Group. He is passionate about inter–faith relations, co–founder of Faiths United, a Trustee of two inter–faith charities and gave a TEDx Talk, “One Earth and Many Religions”, in 2019.

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Posted 25 January 2022

Antisemitism, History, Judaism


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