What Holocaust Memorial Day could mean for a political activist

Holocaust Memorial Day was on January 27th this year, and it is celebrated to primarily remember the Holocaust led by Nazi Germany. However, some MPs have used the annual occasion to remember other kinds of mass genocide from the past, such as those in Rwanda and Cambodia, although there are so many examples of mass genocide, too many to list. In this article, I am referring to the Holocaust led by Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945 against Jewish people and additional minorities. The day’s purpose is remembering and respecting victims, but for political activists, Holocaust Memorial Day may have additional purposes.  

Many political activists from the UK will experience Holocaust Memorial Day as a formal occasion, for which they must turn up to a remembrance event. As Head Girl at my secondary school, I was invited to speak in front of elected local politicians, such as the mayor of our town, councillors, and MP, for the occasion. Photos, messages of wisdom, and stories of victims, may also be shared on social media by activists honouring the occasion. I realised these traditions repeat, year on year.

So how do we make this day more impactful, for us, activists? Holocaust Educational Trust is a charity that does tremendous outreach to schools. I met a Holocaust survivor called Freddie Knoller after winning a school competition. It was through meeting Freddie Knoller that without realising, I had formed a habit of studying the Holocaust for about a day or two, per year, in my spare time. It was by meeting Freddie Knoller that Holocaust Memorial Day became a far more meaningful day for me, as a political activist. It became a check, a day to evaluate, whether I had completed my learning for the year.

The title of this article is “what Holocaust Memorial Day could mean for a political activist”. Indeed, there is a normative element to the title, a part which implies, that there is a “could”-be, another and perhaps better, approach to Holocaust Memorial Day, for activists. Every year, Holocaust Memorial Day Trust set a theme to add variety and inspire their commemorations. This year, the theme is “fragility of freedom”. Previous themes include “be the light in the darkness”, “the power of words”, “communities together: build a bridge”. However, press releases by politicians tend to focus on an underlying theme, year on year: “never again”. How do we make sure something, like the Holocaust, never happens again? 

As political activists, we must protect individuals and individualism against group-based discrimination

On preparing for another year of private studies about the Holocaust, I fortunately lived with a fellow at Wolfson College. By chance, we shared a house in Michaelmas before I moved back into my college, Pembroke. It was the first time I told someone about my habit of studying my biggest political fears, and particularly, the Holocaust. The fellow had an outstanding amount of knowledge on Nazi Germany and loved academic discussions, of course. They were extremely generous by just having a conversation with me. Our discussions resembled my political history tutorials, albeit our conversations and explorations tended to be three to four hours long. I felt profoundly indebted.

Sometimes, I suggested theories about why I thought some atrocities happened, exploring the underlying causes behind people’s ability to do bad things. Said fellow was extremely quick, as we know from our experience in tutorials, to offer a counterexample. I presented my reading list for my paper in political philosophy and learned that there may have been missing seminal scholars in some sections. One of which was a former Nazi, but an influential scholar: Carl Schmitt. I do not know why Schmitt’s seminal contributions were excluded. Perhaps if Schmitt was on the reading list, I would have realised sooner, that quite simply, not all Nazis are profoundly unsophisticated ideologues. The profoundly immoral antisemitic ideology can spread to universities, among those, who we trust to make reasonable judgements. 

What I mean to say, on the whole, is that I hope Holocaust Memorial Day inspires more activists to seriously engage with the past, and especially, when politics has been used in bad ways. How can we notice signs of a bad political decision? How do we respond to new ideas, that do not necessarily resemble Nazi ideology, but risk being disastrous for civilisation? An activist should reckon with these questions, so we are not careless about power we wield. 

To close this article, I would like to repeat the influence Freddie Knoller has had on me. I picked up the cello and performed at a church ceremony for my secondary school, because I was profoundly jealous of Freddie’s musical family; he was the cellist. Why not me? Moreover, Freddie passed a few years later, but he taught me about the importance of the individual. What a tremendous loss to society one individual can be; he was a role model for me. As political activists, we must protect individuals and individualism against group-based discrimination, but I have only learned these lessons through further study in my private time, by feeling the weight of these atrocities on my shoulder. 

Image Credit: Bundesarchiv B 285 Bild-04413, KZ Auschwitz, Einfahrt by Stanislaw Mucha, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0, cropped from original.

Image Description: Auschwitz Concentration Camp.