Last week, Oxford came together to remember one of the darkest periods of history- the Holocaust. Holocaust Memorial Day occurs every year on the 27th of January. This year’s Day was particularly poignant, marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Civic Service took place again at the Town Hall- in the heart of what was the historical Jewish community of Oxford, before its expulsion at the end of the 13th century. At the ceremony, we learned about how horrendous ‘pogroms’ occurred with viciousness in Russia. We were also reminded by Penny Faust from the Oxford Jewish Congregation of the worrying rise in Anti-Semitism. Penny forcefully argued that we all must seek to eradicate Anti-Semitism – especially politicans on the right and on the left, including in the Labour Party.
I was asked to read a poem written by a Welsh soldier involved in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Iolo Lewis. Lewis hinted at the horrors of Belsen, but also asked ‘the question why’. Nowadays we can also often find ourselves asking ‘how’. How on earth could such an unimaginable thing have happened? How could ordinary people have participated in such horrendous acts?
The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year, “Stand Together”, shone a light on this question. It indicated how regimes which eventually commit genocide, often start off with seeking to divide people. Last year’s civic service was addressed by the remarkable Oxfordshire resident Kenneth Appel, who came to Britain via the Kindertransport programme. He explained how other children, parents and teachers slowly ostracized the Jewish children, as police and other officials, and formerly friendly neighbours, stood by. These young children had to face growing abuse, both verbal and physical, and restrictions on what they were allowed to do and where; before then being confined to the ghetto, and then taken to concentration camps.
We must learn the lessons from people like Mr Appel. First, as those with direct experience of the Holocaust sadly pass away, we must work harder to build awareness. Sadly there are some who, despite the incontrovertible evidence, actively work to deny or diminish the significance of the Holocaust. Social media has unfortunately provided outlets for these individuals, and platforms must do more to shut down their hate-filled messages. Political parties also, including my own, must be far quicker and stronger in dealing with individuals who post foul material online.
Secondly, adequate educational resources must be available, and used, in our schools and colleges. As our school system has changed, there are an increasing number of schools which are not obliged to cover the Holocaust as they do not have to follow the National Curriculum. The Holocaust Education Trust has done great work – but we need to make sure that every school is involved.
Above all – we must all ‘stand together’ with the Jewish community and other groups subject to discrimination; online, on our streets, in our schools and colleges and in our workplaces.