Know history, and learn from it
The world observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day yesterday. It was also the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
In commemoration, the United Nations encourages the world to honour the six million Jewish victims of the holocaust – one of humanity’s worst atrocities.
But how do we honour them? What can we do at this stage to pay tribute?
Educate and advocate.
The word “holocaust” is derived from the Greek work “holos” meaning whole and “kaustos” meaning burnt. The horrible event was a state-sponsored mass murder of European Jews during the German Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.
Germany, like the rest of Europe, was predominantly Christian when the Nazis rose to power. In 1933 the country had approximately 45 million Protestant Christians, 22 million Catholic Christians and 500,000 Jews. Religion was a huge part of everyday life and culture and therefore a threat to the Nazi regime as it was seen as an obstacle to power.
Christians were not persecuted, likely because of the high volume of adherents. Instead, Hitler and the Nazis specifically targeted Jewish Europeans between 1941 and 1945.
The Jewish people had done nothing wrong. They were targeted simply because they were Jewish.
There is much debate about whether these tensions where religiously or racially driven, especially because Jews are viewed as both religious group and an ethnicity.
Jewish religious law explains that a person is Jewish if they are born to a Jewish mother, even if they do not practise the religion. One can also convert to Judaism. In many senses, Jewish is both an ethnicity and religion, while not used interchangeably.
The Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler, sought to eliminate the entire Jewish community in Europe. In January 1942 the Wannsee Conference signalled the beginning of a comprehensive operation to exterminate them.
The Germans did not act alone. Countries occupied by Nazis during the Second World War – such as Lithuania and Ukraine, assisted with the oppression.
While the Nazis also murdered other national, social and ethnic groups – such as gypsies and homosexuals – only the Jews were marked for systemic annihilation.
Six killing centres or death camps were established in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Maidanek and Auschwitz. These were supported by concentration camps where Jews were held before murder. All camps were intolerably brutal.
Jews were forced to wear badges to identify themselves and then rounded up into concentration camps before gradually being transported to death camps where they were poisoned in gas chambers.
A less known fact is that thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted for their faith during the Holocaust as well.
Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses were the major religious minorities in Germany in the 1930s. Hitler and the Nazis oppressed and persecuted all Jews. Jehovah’s Witnesses faced similar persecution and oppression for their disobedience to the regime.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral and refused to support the Nazi regime or join the German army. The religious group also publicly spoke against the treatment of the Jews. They were persecuted for this. It is suggested that over 4,000 Witnesses were taken to concentration camps and about 1,600 of them died.
Although this event had little direct impact on Bermuda, the Holocaust is remembered as one of the worst events in human history. It is a part of our collective history and many who have lived through prejudice can empathise with those directly impacted by it. Remembrance of it pays tribute to the lives lost and creates opportunities for reflection and education.
The Holocaust was the culmination of centuries of prejudice, persecution and a mindset of entitlement, superiority, and supremacy. It did not happen all at once. It built over time in increments, with basic human rights being limited and then gradually denied, concluding in massacre.
The disturbing trend of neo-Nazism, religious intolerance, ongoing racism and prejudice based on sexual orientation highlights the continued need for remembrances of this kind.
Awareness of the past is the first step towards learning from it. We have a moral obligation to learn all that we can about these events so that we can be equipped to recognise when these attitudes are surfacing within ourselves and our communities.
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