The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 is How can life go on? In searching for answers to that question I came across the video you were watching on the way into assembly. I learnt for the first time that Nelson Mandela read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank when he was imprisoned on Robben Island. Now I am aware of the possibility of confusion if I begin by talking about two separate periods of twentieth century history and draw links between them. But this assembly will continue on the basis that all of you will at least know who these two important figures are. In the video you’ve just watched Nelson Mandela talks about how reading the diary of a 13 year old girl (murdered during the Holocaust) inspired him and his fellow prisoners to resist Apartheid. I will return to this later.
But why today? Why was January 27th chosen to mark Holocaust Memorial Day? Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Russian Army in 1945. As you know our sixth form Holocaust Educational Trust ambassadors visited the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp last year. I hope you will remember the very moving assembly they gave upon their return. Until the liberation of the camp by soldiers of the Red Army, 72 years ago this very day, the Nazis murdered approximately 1.1 million people in Auschwitz, mostly Jews, but also Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and people of other nationalities. Auschwitz is for the world today, a symbol of the Holocaust and atrocities of World War II. A war in which my grandparents fought in, and suffered through, to defeat the poisonous and racist ideologies of fascism and anti-semitism. It was only in 2005, that the United Nations who adopted 27 January as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Holocaust is such a big word. You will all have your own understanding of it. I thought I understood it. I studied it at school. Probably like you I’ve read many books about it (fictional and nonfictional) and watched many films, plays and TV shows. I’ve visited Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and other historical and geographical sites associated with it. But last weekend I learnt something new and it shocked me. Now I don’t often watch Antiques Roadshow. I associate it with the kind of telly my mum watches on a Sunday night like Songs of Praise and Countryfile. But last weekend I watched the Antiques Roadshow. It was a special edition to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. It’s on iplayer for the next 18 days if you want to catch it. In fact you must watch it. Go home this weekend and sit down with your parents and get them to watch it with you. I’m going to play a clip that shows why we need days and assemblies like this.
What do we see here? We see not the death camps and the slaughter but a children’s game. We see how genocide and mass murder doesn’t just happen. It begins when we normalise hatred and prejudice. When we turn fear or dislike of others into a game or say it was just banter or a laugh or a joke. It begins with words, playground taunts and social media trolling. It begins with games and ends with gas chambers.
The aftermath of the Holocaust and of subsequent genocides continues to raise challenging questions for individuals, communities and nations. Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 asks audiences to think about what happens after genocide and of our own responsibilities in the wake of such crimes. This year’s theme How can life go on? is broad and open ended, there are few known answers. As time passes, fewer and fewer of those who survived the Holocaust are around to share their testimony. That is why we are so privileged that next month our sixth form Holocaust Educational Trust ambassadors and Mrs Tinnelly have organised for years 9, 10, 11 to hear from Harry Bibring. He managed to avoid being killed in the Holocaust but his family, well… I will let you hear from Harry when he visits us soon.
So How can life go on? Life can go on if we make a pledge today not to remain silent and indifferent to prejudice and discrimination. Life can go on if we, like Anne Frank, like Nelson Mandela, if we pledge to spend our lives in the pursuit of justice and virtue. Of love not hate. Of understanding not ignorance. Of compassion not hatred. So How can life go on? Life can go on if we learn the lessons of the past. As Nelson Mandela says of Anne Frank:
The lessons of that tragedy sunk more deeply in our souls and also encouraged us in our situation. Because, if a young girl of 13 could take such militant action then we could follow the same example.
And what was her example? What was her militant action? It was to write a diary. To bear witness to the truth that life is worth living and that to live is to love. That, for me, is my answer to that profound question posed by the Holocaust Memorial Trust. How can life go on? By heeding from this day forward this message from the diary of a 13 year old girl brutally murdered 72 years ago but whose voice still calls to us through the pages of her diary:
We’re much too young to deal with these problems, but they keep thrusting themselves on us until, finally, we’re forced to think up a solution, though most of the time our solutions crumble when faced with the facts. It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.
It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!