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Holocaust Remembrance, and Prejudice

Why is it so important that we remember the Holocaust and how can we make sure future generations never forget?

It is commonly asserted that we must remember the Holocaust to ensure that it never happens again, and of course the importance of this is unquestionable. I feel, however, that the Holocaust can also teach us many lessons in a more day-to-day sense. It can lead us to question various issues in more depth, and serves as an example of the worst case result of problems such as prejudice. We must work not only to avoid a repeat of such atrocities, but to tackle the issues that led to even the possibility of something so horrific.

The Holocaust was so unfathomably awful that it inevitably brings many things into question. It challenges ideas about human nature, in terms of the limits of cruelty and of people’s willingness to cooperate with it. It calls into question the ethics of war – with British conscientious objectors from the First World War changing their stances when faced with this greater evil, while German soldiers, following orders, fought to prop up a regime which was attempting genocide. Hitler’s success in creating a society in which he could implement the Final Solution demonstrates the potential weaknesses in democracy, leading us to consider how we can safeguard against such things in the future.

I feel, however, that the biggest lesson to be learnt from the Holocaust is that of the dangers of prejudice and inequality. When we look at mountains of shoes, representing countless tales of human suffering and countless stolen lives, it is important not to dismiss this tragedy as simply the doings of one evil man, or even a group of them. The Holocaust was perpetrated by the Nazis, yes, but it was enabled, amongst other factors, by the widespread anti-Semitism of the people of Europe. Many civilians in Germany and occupied counties were keen to see the Jews brought low and humiliated, with Rabbi Shimon Huberband recalling how ‘the assembled Poles laughed uproariously with pleasure at the sight’ of forcibly shaven Jews being made to kiss Jewish women without their consent in the street.  Prejudice is still a big issue today, and has a huge effect on the lives of many. It can be encouraged and grown upon by religious institutions, social norms and outdated laws. Unchecked, prejudice can lead to extreme unnecessary pain for people who have caused no harm, and it can also be very easily exploited and manipulated. The Holocaust should serve to everyone as an extreme yet real example of where prejudice can lead. Many young people in Britain see the Holocaust as a terrible yet freak, isolated event, powered purely by unimaginable evil. Not a lot of thought is given to the prejudice, credulity and manipulability of ordinary people, and the huge role this played in allowing the Holocaust to happen. An example of anti-Semitic collaboration that stuck out to me was when a group of SS officers gathered some Jewish men into a square, and called for scissors to be thrown down from surrounding windows so that they could cut off the men’s beards and sideburns. Scissors rained down from the flats around the square. I hate to think how many people today, including those living in Western democracies, would jump at the chance to witness or aid in the humiliation of groups such as Muslims, homosexuals, or especially trans people.

The Holocaust makes it clear to us just how dangerous it is to allow the marginalisation and ‘otherisation’, even to a small degree, of sections of society. It also highlights the importance of thinking about the deeper implications of segregative or discriminatory laws, rather than focussing solely on their immediate and direct effects. The Nazis introducing segregation in terms of facilities such as park benches may seem largely immaterial and unimportant, but what it did was mark the Jews out as different, other, helping the Nazis dehumanise them in the eyes of the population and spread the idea of them being ‘the enemy within.’ This struggle to make understood the dangers of inequality still goes on today, for example with many influential people saying that they didn’t see why it was important to grant same-sex couples marriage equality in the debates around the law passed last year; why could they not just stick with civil partnerships? It matters because by not allowing same-sex couples the same rights and recognition granted to straight couples, we were marking LGBT people out as ‘other’, and helping perpetuate prejudice.

The Holocaust and the laws passed in the lead up to it make it very clear why legislation such as Putin’s ‘anti gay propaganda’ law is so dangerous. This law attempts to cut off their voices, and any of support, thus removing their right to protest against their mistreatment. Putin has fed off and built on an existing Russian prejudice towards gay people, to make them unsafe and vulnerable within Russian society, and that the terrible and often sickeningly violent crimes committed against homosexuals recently in Russia are going unpunished is evidence of this. There is little difference here from the early stages of the persecution of the Jews, and our knowledge of the actions of the Nazis should serve as a warning.

We must think critically about our own prejudices, and the use of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda and its effect illustrates how this must involve us being highly critical of information or ideas we receive from any source, be it the government, religious institutions or corporations. We must take care to be critical and thoughtful in our approach to forming opinions, especially when they are likely the affect the lives of others.

A school trip to the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London had a significant effect on me, and greatly helped me to better understand the events, causes and effects of the Holocaust. I feel that schools should be encouraged where possible to visit exhibitions like it, but I recognise that this is likely not viable for all schools.

I strongly feel that every schoolchild in Britain should be taught about the Holocaust, but, by the time students have reached a suitable age for the topic to be explored in detail with them, they can already have chosen to opt out of History. Perhaps it would be possible to introduce a short compulsory course  – even only three or four lessons – on the Holocaust, separate from the GCSE History curriculum.

I feel that this education should include not only a basic overview of the persecution of the Jews and other social groups at the hands of the Nazis, but also an examination of personal accounts of both victims and perpetrators. It seems crucial to me that both of these groups are humanised, but perhaps for different reasons. The Nazis tried to remove the humanity of their victims: removing their citizenship, changing their names, and eventually assigning them only a number, and working, killing and burying them en masse. This dehumanisation must have been key to how the people involved in the slaughter were able to live with themselves. Restoring the humanity of Holocaust victims therefore is vital, and education should cover personal stories showing the complexity and individuality of the people affected, as well as the scale and breadth of the murder. The reason why the Nazi war criminals must also be humanised is that people need to understand that this was not an anomaly occurring at the hands of a few abnormal people, but the product of a combination of harmful factors. SS officers went home to their families at the end of the day; their lives outside of work were largely unextraordinary. We need to think about what factors led to them being capable of aiding in the murder of Jewish children, while loving their own. Their actions were sickening, but to dismiss them as ‘bad people’ is to avoid the real questions that the Holocaust begs.

We must remember the Holocaust to ensure it never happens again, yes, but we must go further than this. We need to think self-critically as a society in order to identify and work to eliminate baseless and harmful prejudices, trying to avoid  even an echo of the climate which allowed the Holocaust to happen. We should educate every student passing through our schools about the Holocaust, its effects, and especially its causes, attempting to convey some of the complexity of real people involved. We need to recognise that we are all responsible for checking our own prejudice when we are swayed in our opinions of someone by harmless and irrelevant factors such as race, sex or sexuality, and for contradicting those around us when they voice their baseless and harmful prejudices. We must thinking critically about how we view other people, and about how we deal with information we receive, considering everything and everyone compassionately, rationally, and critically, to build a fairer, safer society.


Last year I gained a place in a Youth Forum at Downing Street run by the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission, discussing how best to preserve the memory and lessons of the Holocaust, especially when the remaining survivors are no longer with us. I was really encouraged by how constructive the discussion was (and was honoured to meet Larry the cat!) This essay was my entry for the competition through which I gained my place. It’s a little out of date, although perhaps even more relevant today given the recent increase in the UK of racist and xenophobic hate crimes.

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Just Your Opinion?


A friend of mine recently expressed the view that we should all be respectful of everyone else’s opinions, regardless of to what extent we may disagree. Her subsequent dismissal and rejection of my disagreement to this seemed to me proof enough that indiscriminate acceptance of views is not as practical a policy as she may have thought.

As children, we are told to show complete respect and consideration to everybody’s opinions, and I think this is only right. For one thing, I believe that teaching acceptance and open-mindedness to children is definitely a positive thing, when there is so much prejudice and narrowness in the world; and for another, I really cannot see many of the views expressed to each other by young children being damaging enough to warrant any change of this approach. But I think that it is safe to say that once we have developed into people capable of understanding the difference between petty dislike of those who disagree with us and a justified disregard for bigotry, we no longer need to pretend to live by this rule of universal apology.

For this idea of views being damaging, I think, is the real crux of the matter. As we progress from childhood, we encounter more and more opinions which can truly affect the lives of other people. Whether opinions are harmful must surely be a huge factor in deciding whether or not they deserve respect. I see no reason why I should acknowledge views which cause people harm. It seems bizarre to me for anybody to feel entitled to the world’s automatic respect, whatever their outlook on life. Thousands of young gay people commit suicide every year, and this cannot be blamed solely on the direct hateful actions of bullies, but also on the steady, imposing disapproval and intolerance which even our relatively liberal-minded society radiates from various quarters. When your views contribute towards the otherisation and demonisation of a group of innocent people to the extent where they feel cornered into taking their own lives, to expect those views to be seen as sacrosanct on the basis that they are ‘just your opinion’ is absurd, arrogant and thoughtless. There is no ‘just’ about opinions, and nothing trivial about anything you might think and express which may cause unnecessary harm to other people. Your beliefs do not exist in a vacuum, and I am amazed that anybody could be so irresponsible as to think that a view being solely their personal belief on a matter could absolve them of responsibility for it. How many girls have been made to feel worthless by being frowned upon, sneered at and bullied simply for harmlessly exploring their sexual desires as a boy might? How many people have been made to feel inferior because of such superficial and harmless things as the colour of their skin, or their parents’ nationality, or their gender?

The beginnings of the vilification and ostracism of the Jews by the Nazis was made possible, and even easy, by the existing widespread prejudice and resentment towards them throughout Europe: an undercurrent of apathetic and relatively mild anti-Semitism, the dangerous potential of which was soon to be revealed. Ordinary Poles threw scissors from the upstairs windows of their homes on the Nazis’ request so that Orthodox Jews could be publically ridiculed and deprecated by having their beards forcibly shorn in the square. I wonder how many people in Western democracies today would be only too eager to go along with something similar to strip the dignity from Muslims or gays. I think I would rather not know.

Of course, there are other opinions that I really wish people didn’t hold, but, ultimately judging them not immediately and directly harmful, my respect for people who do hold them can remain untarnished. I think that a good example of this for me is religion. Whilst religion itself certainly has the potential to cause great harm, it is evident to me that many people who believe in a higher power and identify with a certain theological belief system are not causing any harm in doing so. There are many reasons for my longing for people not to follow religions. The blind acceptance of some taught wisdoms and the idea of faith can lead to a susceptibility to blindly accepting further assertions, and can result in being easily prejudiced or manipulated. This discouragement of criticism and independent thought is, to me, very troublesome. People have been led to do terrible things through religion. However, whilst I think that most religious institutions and doctrines are a profoundly negative force in the world, it would be unreasonable to claim that everyone who is religious is causing harm by being so. It may generally involve a seemingly odd sort of cherry-picking from supposedly sacred texts, but many people do manage to believe in God and identify with a religion without harming others. And for this reason, I do not believe that being religious is in and of itself an opinion not deserving of respect.

Of course, if somebody’s belief in God, or any other factor, leads to them holding other opinions which do cause people harm, then my respect for and good opinion of them may well be lost completely – and I am certainly concerned by the role that religions often seem to play in forming or exacerbating peoples’ hatred and prejudices. And, of course, people often tend to feel that their opinions deserve respect and recognition purely because they are backed by religious teachings.

I strongly feel that the only degree of respect that everybody should be able to expect irrespective of what their views are and how much they may affect others is that their basic human rights not be violated, and they be able to continue to feel safe in their day-to-day lives. Everyone, however bigoted, should be free from being hurt or threatened; free from themselves or their loved ones being endangered; free from their voices being silenced – even in the case of the poisonous chants of the loathsome Westboro Baptist Church. But I strongly feel that there is no reason for people to be free from the anger and frustration of the people affected by their views; nor should they be free from the disgust of people whose compassion and empathy mean that they resent the harm caused to these people. Everybody deserves to be able to express their views safely, but their entitlement does not and should not extend beyond that. People whose opinions cause or perpetuate the harm of other human beings must be prepared for scorn and contempt – and, yes, for a loss of respect.

[photo taken from www.colorsrainbow.com]

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This is a refined version of my initial reaction to a school trip to Ypres in Belgium, the site of a great deal of conflict in the First World War.

There have been times in my life when I have been sure neither how I should feel nor how I do. At the Tyne Cot Cemetery at Ypres, I experienced this acutely. The sense that I didn’t have the right to be upset. Having heard the figures in a lesson, that should have impacted on me enough. Why should a visual representation of a tiny fraction of the loss of life change the way I felt, when the figures had not? The constant attempts to reconcile logic with compassion, to balance them; almost to decide how to feel. Should an unnamed grave be sadder than a named one? Somehow it seemed so, dehumanising as it was, but, really, how is dying horrifically in an alien land at all improved by a correctly marked slab of stone?

I found that mostly I felt anger: at my own futility; at the pointlessness of it all; at the glorifications of war that covered a graveyard built through respect for the people that it killed. The First World War was not glorious, not a worthy cause, but a sickening, tragic waste of human life.

And wars go on.

The German cemetery that we next visited was worse. A vast mass grave at the entrance, inscribed with thousands of names, each representing a life, a person.

The graveyard screamed resentment. Of course, Belgium had been reluctant to allow its construction, considering the terrible treatment she had received from Germany. But each of those German soldiers was no different from those of Belgium, or France, or England. They were initially fighting ‘for their country’, pressured by propaganda, and then because they had to. Fighting to get home. They were all the same. And yet they were all individuals, with different people they missed back home; different attitudes to life and death and war; different ideas, hopes, dreams, all extinguished only too easily. Too often, the ones who order offences are the ones to sit back and watch others die.

I knew only too well that I’d shake it off, we all would. Following the German graveyard, we went into the town of Ypres for dinner. We were raucous, crazy; chattering and weaving and barely crossing the road safely. All too quickly, our conflict and frustration was relinquished.

‘We will remember them’ has never quite rung true. A promise than cannot be kept, made solely to placate people’s consciences. The bitter truth is that if we were to remember this world in its entirety all of the time we would destroy ourselves. And, of course, we do not remember them, but the concept of war, often glamorised. We never knew a single one of those men. And remembering war to prevent further conflict in the future doesn’t seem quite sincere when our men and women are dying and killing in the Middle East. And yet, I must agree that such a thing should never be forgotten.  At the time they dubbed WW1 ‘the war to end all wars.’ I wonder if they believed it.

The journey home, late at night, was less raucous, but any distress people had felt was rapidly dispersing. The horror of a hundred years ago had returned to the abstract.

They did not die for honour, or glory, or God. They died for the greed and pride of the leaders of their countries.

And, try as we might, we cannot remember them.

[photo of poppy taken and edited by me]

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