Holocaust Memorial Day: what the lives of the ordinary people of Nazi Germany tell us about being an ordinary person today

Every year on Holocaust Memorial Day, I think one day a year could never be enough to say everything that is still left to be said about the Holocaust – and every year, as soon as I sit down to write anything, my mind goes blank, with only one word pulsing through it: HaShoah. Hebrew for ‘The Catastrophe’, it’s how a lot of Jews choose to refer to the Holocaust. I hope that this usage never becomes obsolete – that humanity will never see atrocities rivalling those that earned the Catastrophe its definite article – but the list of genocides we remember on HMD keeps growing, and as it grows, this hope sounds more and more like a pipe dream.

Today marks the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — an extermination camp that alone appended the Hebrew honorific HY’’D (short for HaShem yikkom damam – ‘may G-d avenge their blood’) reserved for victims of violent antisemitism to a million names, give or take. Revenge is a dish best served cold – and non-violently. By vehemently opposing everything the Nazis strived for: by remembering the names they tried to replace with prisoner numbers, by listening to the stories of people whose memory they sought to erase, by celebrating communities that they worked tirelessly to wipe off the face of the earth, by showing up for the oppressed and standing up to bigotry in any form, we avenge the blood of the six million Jews — as well as the millions of Slavs, Roma people, queer people, disabled people, communists murdered by the Nazis, and of the millions and millions of people who have died, and are still dying, in other genocides. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll see much of the latter today. Instead, the media will be flooded with the routine Lest we forget’s and Never again’s from people in positions of power that don’t seem to know what they’re trying not to forget or what they cannot allow to happen again. Frankly, I don’t care what the Prime Minister, whose Home Secretary earlier this month refused to apologise for her anti-refugee rhetoric when confronted about it by a Holocaust survivor, has to say about the Holocaust. I don’t want to hear the name of the Shoah come out of the mouths of people I wouldn’t trust not to be complicit in the next Shoah. 

Someone might do well to remind Suella Braverman that the refugee ‘crisis’ was once Jewish in nature, and that back then the ‘invaders’ of Britain’s southern coast came on Kindertransports. I doubt that would make much of a difference to her, though; there was never a shortage of voices calling for even stricter immigration controls in the name of ‘British jobs’ and ‘the fabric of British society’. It is quite grotesque that in the eighty or so years that have passed since then, the priorities of British refugee politics have remained much the same — as if they had not been responsible for failing to avert many thousands of the six million deaths. 

Someone might also do well to remind Suella Braverman that the Nazis’ absurd pseudoscientific theories about race weren’t the sole, or even the main, vehicle of dissemination of the hatred that fuelled the crematoria of extermination camps. Jewish people were not simply ‘inferior’ from a ‘scientific’ perspective; they were painted as a threat that Germany and the Germans needed to be protected from. Dehumanising groups of people through reducing them to a ‘question’, a ‘problem’, a ‘debate’ is the first step on a well-trodden political path that leads to Auschwitz. The same language and the same principles are coming to dominate Britain’s government rhetoric and inform its policy towards migrants, trans and queer people and other minorities. 

Not unlike Germany in the 1930s, today’s Britain is a society where the language of hatred and division is allowed to proliferate by those holding the highest offices and where marginalised groups are scapegoated for the country’s rapid downhill trajectory to lift the weight of accountability off the shoulders of those who have profited from it. Populist propaganda has been very successful in fostering a culture where the fight for social justice is derided as ‘wokeness’, social welfare is pushed to the sidelines of the political agenda, and bigotry is normalised and trivialised. 

The theme of this year’s HMD, ‘ordinary people’, is very pertinent in this social climate. Today, we should all take some time to think about the ordinary Germans of the Third Reich — not just the criminals who faced trial at Nuremberg or the accomplices who escaped justice, but also the run-of-the-mill citizens. Especially the run-of-the-mill citizens. The Holocaust wasn’t just the arms that wore the Hakenkreuz — the Holocaust was also the eyes that looked away and the mouths that stayed sealed. There’s no reason to believe this couldn’t one day be us.

The ordinary Germans weren’t all raging antisemites doing the sieg heil out of sheer zeal, though many were. Others did the sieg heil because they had things to lose; their job, their income, their social standing. Not everyone who refused to help Jews asking them for help and protection did so out of malice or fear. Many simply had other things to worry about, other people to take care of, other places to be, important Nazis to shake hands with, important Nazis to impress. Maybe they went to bed after work every night too tired to wonder where the Jewish greengrocer from the little shop down the street had gone. The scariest thing is, you often think becoming an ordinary German is worse than death – until you become one, and life feels like it was never any different. I’ve learned a lot about this over the past eleven months.

As someone who was born and grew up in Russia, I feel like I’ve witnessed its transformation into a country of ordinary Germans since the start of its invasion of Ukraine in the name of its ‘denazification’. There’s hardly been a day that I didn’t hear about public figures and people I used to know denying Russian war crimes, justifying them as a ‘necessary evil’, claiming Russia had no choice in the face of an alleged genocidal threat to ethnic Russians but to commit genocide first. As outrageous and deeply disturbing as all of these things are, there’s one that’s the most soul-crushing of all; ‘I don’t really care about politics’ – in my experience, for some reason, indifference is a bigger killer of hope than hatred.

I’m in no position to judge ordinary Russians; I think I turned into one at some point, too, and I’m still trying to un-become one. It’s easier to become desensitised to genocide than you would think it should be, it turns out. It doesn’t begin to compare to the horrors of genocide itself, but it’s still horrifying in a different way. For the longest time you can’t sleep or think about anything else or stop talking about it, and then one day you find yourself opening the news to check how many deaths your family’s tax money paid for today, feeling numb when you see the figure, then closing the news and going back to your errands. You don’t notice the moment you cross this threshold; it just creeps up on you, and next thing you know, it feels like some part of you has shut down, almost like you’re barely human anymore. Maybe it’s just me. Sadly, I don’t think it’s just me – if it was, we’d be remembering a lot fewer genocide victims today.

Yesterday in the West Bank, the IDF killed nine Palestinians at Jenin refugee camp, including a civilian man and an elderly woman. About 30% of the population of Israel are of full or partial Ashkenazi Jewish descent; I am, too. We are all only three or four generations away from the barbed wire of Auschwitz, and we owe it to the memory of those who never lived to see the world past fences made of it to refuse to watch these fences spring up again in silence. Words are rarely enough, but, as HMD reminds us every year, silence is worse. Silence is complicity.

In extraordinary times, the human psyche adapts to what under any other circumstances would sound unfathomable. Ordinary people inflicted, condoned, ignored barely conceivable suffering – but equally, ordinary people looked out for one another in ghettos and concentration camps, ordinary people hid Jews in their homes or helped them get to safety, ordinary people formed resistance groups in the face of the threat of execution. To make sure none of us will ever have to make choices as difficult as these on a daily basis for years, like the Germans and the people of other Nazi-occupied countries did, we need to consistently choose to condemn injustice when we see it instead of looking away, to speak out against bigotry whoever we hear it from, and to listen to marginalised people when they say they’re being oppressed.