Message for Holocaust Memorial Day (2012)

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks recorded this message for Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January 2012, on the silence that haunted him ever since he first started thinking about the Holocaust.

"In the end," said Martin Luther King, "we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

And it's that silence that's haunted me ever since I first started thinking about the Holocaust. Where were the voices? Where were the protests?

The Holocaust didn't happen long ago and far away. It happened within living memory, at the very heart of the Europe of enlightenment and rationalism and science, in the land of Bach and Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Hegel, some of the finest composers, poets and philosophers the Western world has ever known. Nor did it happen suddenly, in a frenzy of hate.

The Holocaust took five and a half years. The programme to rob Jews and others of their rights and classify them as, in effect, subhuman, began six years earlier still, almost as soon as Hitler took power in 1933. Nor was it carried out by a mob. It involved doctors, lawyers, scientists, academics. What's truly horrifying reading through the diaries of those who lived through the events is the almost total absence of horror.

One day in 1933, all Jewish lawyers in Germany were dismissed. Nothing was said. Jews came into the offices some of them had worked in them for as long as their adult lives, and they removed their belongings and they left, and no one said anything.

Then it happened to Jewish academics, then to Jewish doctors. No public protest, as little by little, an entire class of humanity was turned into nonpersons.

On 12 March 1938, the German army enter Austria. Overnight, the Jews of Vienna, one sixth of its population, were deprived of all civil rights to own property, to employ or be employed, to exercise any profession, to enter a restaurant or a cafe or a public park within twenty-four hours. And this was Vienna, the cultural capital of Europe.

Next day, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Dr Taglicht, a man of 70 years old, was forced to put on his tallis, his Jewish prayer shawl, and get down on his knees in the street and scrub the pavements. Passers by stopped to watch. There are photographs of them looking and laughing. No one is protesting.

Within days, hundreds of Viennese Jews had committed suicide. Where there was protest, it made a difference.

In 1940, the Nazis were engaged in a programme of euthanasia in hospitals to put to death the mentally and physically handicapped. Brave Germans, some of them Protestant and Catholic religious leaders protested, and the most public part of the programme was immediately stopped.

Protest made a difference, even in Nazi Germany, but there was far too little protest, especially when it came to Jews or gays or Romas and Sinti.

And so it went on and on, and so it goes on today in far too many other places today, where being the wrong colour or ethnicity or religion or tribe deprives you of the most basic human right to live in freedom without fear. And there is still all too little protest.

The Bible says: "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour." Meaning, when someone else is dying, don't say 'It has nothing to do with me.' Freedom is indivisible, and our fates are intertwined. So this Holocaust Memorial Day, let us resolve that if the moment comes, we will stand up and speak out, so that no one will have reason to say, when we cried, you were not listening. When we suffered, you were silent.