Holocaust Memorial Day 2023
On January 27th people across the UK will attend events to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and more recent subsequent genocides.
Holocaust Memorial Day, Ordinary People and Citizenship – what role do we play?
On a bitterly cold January 27th 1945, Red Army soldiers arrived at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and liberated the few remaining survivors from the death camp as they continued to forge forward across occupied Europe. In truth, most of the camp by this time had been destroyed, including the gas chambers and crematoria, and most of the inmates who were able to had already begun the ‘Death Marches’ further back into occupied zones.
A simple search on the internet will quickly find the iconic images of the Auschwitz guardhouse and infamous gate with its slogan of ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Work sets you free). Other images of personal belongings and the ghost-like figures of the people imprisoned at the camp demonstrate the importance of the site that was liberated on the day we commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. However, Auschwitz was unique as a camp and unlike others created at the time. Not just built as a place of death, but in fact a system of 52 subcamps each with their own purpose. Each of these camps, as well as being staffed by Nazi soldiers, included a workforce of ‘ordinary people’ who carried out various roles, such as secretaries and bookkeepers. In 2015, in a well publicised case, Oskar Groening was charged with accessory to murder of 300,0000 people for his role as SS Accountant at Auschwitz. He was in essence a civil servant, however as the Auschwitz Museum states “Departments III (camp administration) and II (political department) played the leading role in the terror and extermination system”. Highlighting the leading role ‘ordinary people’ played in the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust has left an indelible mark on human history. Although with each passing year those for whom it is a living memory decreases, there’s a passion and commitment from others to ensure that the victims are never forgotten and the lessons learnt are retained.
So, what are the lessons learnt from an event that appears to be so alien and in conflict with all the morals and values which we as ordinary people hold dear? It is far easier for us to consider this event as a fracture in normal behaviour for humans – a madness, people who were psychologically disturbed, evil individuals who we will never see the likes of again.
However, the truth is in fact the opposite. The Holocaust and following genocides were perpetrated by ordinary people. Let us consider for instance the meeting at Wannsee, the beautiful lakeside villa where on 20th January 1942 senior officials met to discuss the implementation of the Final Solution. Among those who attended were highly educated men, lawyers with PHDs, and members of various government departments. We believe that there were many conversations held around the table which focused on how the rule of law would work within these plans alongside other academic theoretical debates. This highlights the educated background that many leading Nazis came from, far-flung from those acting in madness.
Indeed it was ordinary people who collaborated with the Nazi SS to ensure the efficient killing of Jewish people in recently occupied areas of Eastern Europe, with huge numbers executed in forests by citizens of towns and villages who assisted the killing squads. The ordinary people made the choice, based on antisemitism, to support the murder of people they often knew.
Across occupied Europe, ordinary people were making decisions. Some chose to do extraordinary things, others chose to profit from the situation they found themselves in. In an occupied country choices may never be straightforward. But, it is true that those civilians who attended auctions of their neighbours belongings, benefited from improved housing and working conditions. They chose to report those who attempted to hide or help Jews. These were ordinary people making very different decisions to those that acted in an alternative way. These people were benefiting from the prejudicial treatment and eventual murder of others. Those who drew up the lists of who was Jewish, those who drove the trains to the camps, those who operated the signals on the tracks, those who organised tickets for the trains were all ordinary people who facilitated the Holocaust to happen.
Those that made the choice to risk their lives and the lives of their families to hide Jews, those who resisted the Nazis were ordinary people. They were the neighbours, and strangers in the same communities as those who facilitated or benefited from this event. However, these people made the choice to do more.They took action.They understood the importance of rights and they believed they should take action against injustice. They observed in spite of the risks. Sometimes it is easy to believe that to provide support and help in situations is to suddenly become a hero, or to show a strength of character that people feel they may not have. In truth, when speaking to those who did provide rescue during the Holocaust, they describe themselves as far from extraordinary. Often they highlight how simple acts made the difference for individuals; for example sharing a small amount of food with a slave labourer in a factory and wrapping it in a newspaper. Not only did this provide valuable nutrition but also important information and hope to the victim.
The way in which people behave during such times emphasises the importance of all society to understand the relevance of Human Rights, democratic values and our ability and responsibility to take action when we see injustice taking place. All of these topics are central to the Citizenship curriculum.
We are not, I hope, preparing students for impending genocide. However, it is important to remember the words of Primo Levi, Holocaust Survivor and author:
“It happened, therefore it can happen again; this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen and it can happen everywhere.”
Historian Ian Kershaw wrote, “The road to Auschwitz was built with hate but paved with indifference”. While elites can produce the laws and plan the actions of genocides, it is the ordinary people that enable it or challenge it.
During our Citizenship lessons we should be doing all we can to ensure that students are not indifferent to hate, and that they know how to use their own power as changemakers. To use their knowledge of human rights and democracy to challenge and report incidents of hatred. Ordinary People is the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2023. With recorded numbers of antisemitism and other forms of prejudice higher than ever, there can be no better time than now to consider everybody’s role in improving society.
On 18th January 2023 on the occasion of his 93rd birthday, Zigi Shipper, one of the most generous, loving and humble Holocaust survivors, sadly died.
Zigi Shipper could captivate audiences of even the most challenging students within minutes. His message at the end of his testimony was clear; “Don’t hate”. If anything, as 2023 unfolds and we continue to educate our students about the consequences of prejudice, antisemitism and human rights abuses, we can use Zigi’s simple message as the foundation. Let’s make 2023 (and beyond) focus on his message of anti-hatred and ensure our students have the knowledge and skills to make his wish a reality.
Zigi Shipper 1930 – 2023
May his memory be a blessing.
Explore the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 here: https://www.hmd.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/HMD-2023-Theme-Vision.pdf
Explore resources that support Citizenship learning around this topic:
This lesson looks at the actions taken by ordinary people to protect children during the Holocaust: https://www.hmd.org.uk/resource/secondary-kindertransport-lesson-plan/
Centre for Holocaust Education
This lesson explores the persecution of ordinary people in Germany which gradually eroded their Human Rights.
Lesson recommended for Key Stage 3 and in more depth at Key Stage 4. This lesson could also be taught as 5 separate lessons. https://holocausteducation.org.uk/teacher-resources/post-it-online-courses/hmd2023/
Holocaust Educational Trust
Here are some suggested readings you may wish to use in your lessons:
This lesson explores the responses of ordinary people during the Holocaust: https://www.het.org.uk/exploring-the-holocaust/dilemmas-choices-and-responses-to-the-holocaust