Is the holocaust still relevant in today’s climate?

Louisa Pawsey

Image © Matt Brown

Holocaust Memorial Day brings with it the knowledge that there are still people who remember suffering at the hands of the Nazis. It also brings pain to people whose families will never be complete because there is someone or multiple someones missing from the dinner table.  But for the rest of us exactly how important is the 27th of January? Just another day in the calendar?  Another day for you to live your life?  Have you even noticed that Holocaust Memorial Day is now printed in every diary and on every calendar? Is anyone interested?

As a military historian, I should be shouting from the rooftops about the importance and relevance of Holocaust Memorial Day – but I just can’t.  In fact, the more I study, the more I realise how little people care and how little relevance the holocaust has to anybody that wasn’t affected or involved.  Of course it’s not just the holocaust that has this effect, every year the amount of people wearing a poppy in November has seemed to dwindle and it is fashionable to protest against the armed forces.  As a historian, the first thing you learn is that the further back in history you go, the less interest people have and there will come a time when all the Holocaust survivors will have disappeared. 

We must forget that this time on Friday museums and churches across the country will be staging memorials and services to remember those who perished in the Nazi death camps, but how many people know where their nearest service is? Who will turn up to, say, London’s Imperial War Museum? Will it only be members of the Jewish community or those with an interest in WWII standing around a slate memorial in the cold?

But what about those millions of men, woman and children who, through no fault of their own found themselves huddled around each other dressed in rags on that cold winter morning in January 1945 when eventually soldiers appeared at the gate?  What about those who were technically free at that point but never survived the end of that day, who never lived to see the freedom they had been given?  Can you even spare them a thought on Friday morning?

Those who don’t give it a second though on Friday won’t be alone.  In Britain, people weren’t directly affected by the holocaust at the time it happened so why now after 67 years should we be suddenly be bothered?  I mean let’s face it, people knew what was going on in 1942, many did nothing to stop it, so surely we would be hypocrites to now pretend that we actually care and that it makes a difference to us and our lives?

The problem lies with that fact that in the UK we don’t have any constant reminders of the horrors of the holocaust. The camps are tucked away in remote parts of Europe, where in a lot of cases their own country doesn’t want to acknowledge their existence.  Apart from Auschwitz, most camps are little more than empty patches of ground, so what are we supposed to do?  It is also very difficult to bring the holocaust into relevance when countries such as Latvia and Hungary have a strong culture of holocaust denial and even less willing to teach their school children the horrors of their countries past.  How is a child supposed to understand and accept the relevance of the holocaust when their governments refuse to admit it happened?

This is major problem for the UK.  There is no education program for the holocaust in British schools.  They teach about WWII, but to go into detail you have to wait until you reach MA level at university and that’s only if you choose to study at that level.  How is a child supposed to understand what happened when it’s not taught in schools?  Then there is the issue of when to start teaching kids about the holocaust and how much detail you go into. At what age should a child know the horrors that took place in the camps?  It wouldn’t be wrong for any parent to want to shelter their child from that.

While there are some great organisations such as the Anne Frank Organisation and Yad Vashem that operate within the school system that try and teach tolerance and understanding but these organisations can only go into schools when invited.  Having worked with the Anne Frank organisation during some volunteering with the Imperial War Museum I have seen firsthand how difficult their job is.  How are you supposed to explain the holocaust to a teenager who can’t understand the concept of a life without an iPod?  It is an uphill struggle and the more distant it seems then the more difficult it is to grasp the enormity of the tragedy.

I wish I could say we have learnt our lesson from the holocaust but sadly we haven’t, when massacres such as Srebrenica continue to this day, and the horrors of the Hussein regime are still not taught or discussed in schools it is impossible for anyone to understand the gravity and make it relevant to themselves and to the current climate that unless this current generation has to live and suffer through such a crime against humanity then it will never gain the relevance and remembrance it deserves.

As much as it pains me to write this, we all need to realise that to the majority of the non-Jewish world the holocaust has little or no relevance to the individual and that is why there are still such horrendous crimes against humanity being committed in the name of religion or politics.  But I will be joining those others at the Imperial War Museum on Friday morning to hang my head in shame that the British government didn’t try and do more to stop these terrible events.

This is a co-publication with The Groucho Tendency to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

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