Reflections on Holocaust Memorial Day

The 27th of January is International Holocaust Memorial Day, set on the date when, 72 years ago, Auschwitz Concentration Camp was liberated by the Red Army, and the scale of the Nazis’ atrocities began to be understood. Out of the horror of those atrocities, and the ashes of that war, the European Union was built so that such crimes would never again be possible.

 

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The Holocaust was the largest systematic campaign of genocide in human history, with the murder of six million Jews, as well as Roma, LGBTI people, trade unionists, political prisoners, Soviet war prisoners and people with disabilities. The memory of the Holocaust must be a warning to us all that we must always strive for peace, tolerance, and human rights, based on the common dignity of all people. 

Holocaust Memorial Day has a crucial significance this year, as we are witnessing the spectre of racist and xenophobic nationalism on the rise again across the Western world. Donald Trump came to power with the support of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. In its first week, his administration wasted no time in attacking women’s rights, Muslims, immigrants, and scientists. He has set about destroying the very fabric of democratic society. 

In my own country of the UK, the government has been busy praising Trump in line with its own xenophobic agenda, painting immigration as a threat, and sacrificing our economy, jobs and growth, for the sake of stopping people from coming into our country. Across Europe, far-right extremists are on the rise, and it is up to us, all democrats and those who believe in common human dignity to stand up and stop them. Today, we must reflect on that sober history, reach out to people from all backgrounds and all walks of life to reflect on common understanding, and draw strength for the inevitable battles ahead. 

We must fight the all too common narrative that somebody else is always to blame for the world's problems, resulting in a culture of fear and scapegoating. Therefore we need to put education and intercultural dialogue at the heart of a holistic vision for a better future. Children are not born to hate, so tackling things from an early age is vital. When people come together, talk honestly, and share in each other's culture, they learn that we are all human beings with common aspirations and concerns. 

And that’s the bottom line of a report I authored which was adopted by the European Parliament a year ago, on the role of intercultural dialogue, cultural diversity and education to promote fundamental values.

This weekend I am in Budapest at the annual conference of Culture Action Europe (CAE), the European network for arts and culture. CAE members have dedicated their lives to fostering inter-cultural dialogue through the arts, enabling us to reflect on the state of our societies, our values and our history. 

Nearby, on the banks of the Danube, adjacent to the Hungarian parliament building, there is a powerful art piece in memory of victims of the Holocaust. Rows of shoes, created by artist and film-director Can Tongay, mark the place where 3,500 people, 800 of them Jews, were lined up along the riverside and shot by death squads in 1944-45. In the summer of 1944, more than 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz and killed in the gas chambers.       

As we remember this history and re-affirm our commitment to democracy and human rights, we must come together and see that it is our responsibility to stop the slide towards nationalism and racism that we see happening around us today. 

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