1. Remembering the Holocaust

As noted by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Holocaust (the Shoah in Hebrew) was the attempt by the Nazis and their collaborators to murder all the Jews in Europe.

The trust observes that from the time the Nazis assumed power in Germany in 1933, they used propaganda, persecution and legislation to deny human and civil rights to German Jews. Following the outbreak of the second world war in 1939 and Germany’s invasion and occupation of Poland, the trust notes that the Nazis subjected around two million Polish Jews to violence and forced labour:

Thousands of Jews were murdered in the first months of the occupation. Shortly after the occupation Polish Jews were confined to particular neighbourhoods that came to be known as ‘ghettos’. Living conditions in these ghettos were appalling—a deliberate attempt by the Nazis to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews. This approach was repeated across Eastern Europe in other countries occupied by the Nazis.

The trust has stated that the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews began in 1941, a plan known by the Nazis as ‘The final solution to the Jewish problem’:

Death squads called Einsatzgruppen swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, killing Jews by firing squad. By the end of 1941 the first extermination camp, Chelmno in Poland, had been established, giving the Nazis their method to continue murdering on a giant scale between 1941 and 1945.

By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women and children had been murdered in ghettos, mass-shootings, in concentration camps and extermination camps.

2. What is International Holocaust Memorial Day?

International Holocaust Memorial Day was created on 27 January 2000, on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, when representatives from 46 governments, including the UK, met in Stockholm to discuss Holocaust remembrance, education and research. Following the meeting, all attendees signed the Stockholm Declaration committing to “commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to honour those who stood against it”. The day also commemorates those killed in more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

In January 2020, as the world marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, ministers from the 34 countries of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted an amended ministerial declaration to underline and renew the commitments made in the 2000 Stockholm Declaration. The amended declaration included references to the genocide of the Roma, for example, following calls for more explicit recognition of this issue.

In addition to International Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January also marks the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, a date adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 1 November 2005 through resolution 60/7. The resolution also called on United Nations member states to develop educational programmes “to instil the memory of the tragedy in future generations to prevent genocide from occurring again”. In addition, the resolution requested that the United Nations secretary-general establish an outreach programme, titled ‘Holocaust and the United Nations’, and “institute measures to mobilize civil society for Holocaust remembrance and education” to “help prevent future acts of genocide”. The Holocaust and the United Nations outreach programme was established in January 2006.

3. What is planned for this year’s anniversary?

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 in the UK is ‘ordinary people’. The theme is based upon the idea that ordinary people both facilitate, and are victims of, genocidal events like the Holocaust. As stated by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust:

Genocide is facilitated by ordinary people. Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed—they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group (eg Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi).

Ordinary people were involved in all aspects of the Holocaust, Nazi persecution of other groups, and in the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Ordinary people were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses—and ordinary people were victims.

The trust says that it hopes the theme will prompt us to consider how ordinary people can “perhaps play a bigger part than we might imagine in challenging prejudice today”.

4. What is happening in the UK to commemorate International Holocaust Memorial Day?

Each year the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust organises the UK commemorative event for Holocaust Memorial Day. This is the focal point of the commemorations in the UK and brings together the civic, faith and political leadership of the country, alongside survivors of the Holocaust and more recent genocides. It will include an online ceremony that anyone can register to watch.

Thousands of events will also take place to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day across the UK. This includes events held by local authorities, workplaces, schools, universities, museums and other settings, which in the words of the trust allow people to “come together to learn lessons from the past, to create a safer, better future”.

To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day in Parliament, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, is leading an event where survivors of genocide and the Holocaust will be invited to share their experiences with parliamentarians. The event is organised in partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. In addition, debates to mark the day will be held in both Houses.

In July 2022, Paul Scully, then minister of state for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, also said that the government remained committed to the creation of a new national memorial commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. He noted that a site had been selected in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent to the Palace of Westminster, but that a legal challenge had led to the removal of planning consent:

Following an extensive search for suitable sites, in which around 50 possible locations were considered, Victoria Tower Gardens was chosen as the best possible location for the memorial. Constructing the memorial next to Parliament, at the heart of our democracy, provides a powerful signal of the importance we attach to remembering the Holocaust and seeking to learn its lessons. Following a lengthy public inquiry, planning consent for the memorial and learning centre was granted in July 2021. Sadly, though, a challenge was brought by the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust, which led to the High Court quashing the consent in April this year.

The loss of that consent was a disappointment, especially to those Holocaust survivors who place such high value on sharing their testimony and who want to be confident that their message will continue to be heard. It was a further disappointment that the Court of Appeal decided yesterday that an appeal against the High Court decision would not be heard.

Mr Scully said that the government was considering next steps in light of this issue.

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Cover image by photoangel on Freepik.