On Sunday, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we’ll be observing national holocaust memorial day. We remember not just the Jews who died but the other victims of Nazi persecution, the Roma and Sinti peoples, gay men, the physically and mentally handicapped, Jehovah Witnesses and political prisoners together with the victims of other tragedies since in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.”
How do you begin to understand the scale of the destruction? On 9/11 2001, 3000 people were killed in the worst terrorist tragedy of modern times. During the holocaust on average 3,000 Jews were killed, every day, for five and a half years. There are European cities where I can’t walk, even today, without feeling that I’m in the presence of ghosts, a whole murdered generation.
For me one of the great privileges of my life has been coming to know Holocaust survivors. Never have I met people with a more tenacious hold on life. For years, they sought not to remember, knowing that if they allowed themselves to relive the trauma they simply wouldn’t be able to carry on.
Yet in recent years, as they’ve seen how hate continues to take its toll in bloodshed throughout the world, they’ve shared their memories, especially with young people, without bitterness, simply to remind the next generation of where evil ends if you allow it to begin, and how freedom and respect for difference need to be fought for if we’re to prevent such things ever happening again.
Later this morning, as I do each year, I’ll be going with a survivor, to one of London’s schools to join them for their act of remembrance. And each year I’m struck by how, in schools with children from almost every conceivable ethnicity and background, the pupils understand immediately what the Holocaust means to them, how it means taking a stand against prejudice and abuse, and fighting the forces of destruction within the human heart. Anyone who doubts the moral seriousness of young people today should visit such schools, and they’ll find their faith in the future restored.
For me one of the most extraordinary aftermaths of the Shoa happened less than a year ago in America. A student at Virginia Tech went on the rampage, killing more than 30 people. Liviu Lebrescu, a 76 year old holocaust survivor from Rumania, was teaching a class when he heard the gunshots. He barricaded the door while his students escaped through a window, giving his life that they might live. Memory can’t change the past; but it can help us have the courage to change the future.