Why the Holocaust is a contemporary issue

Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, explains why comprehensive Holocaust education is the key to preventing history repeating itself.

Why the Holocaust is a contemporary issue

There can be no doubt that the state-sponsored slaughter of six million Jews before and during the Second World War stands out as a reminder of human capacity for unspeakable cruelty. 

Although Jews were the main target of the Nazi regime’s killing machine, we know that other groups were also persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust, including Roma and Sinti people, black people, gay people, and mentally and physically disabled people.

Today, it is critical that the brutal truth of the Holocaust is not dimmed. By reminding ourselves of the worst that human beings can do to each other, we can seek to prevent future atrocities. As the old saying goes, ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ It is, therefore, worrying to learn that a recent survey in the US has found that nearly two thirds of the young Americans who responded are unaware that six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

While we cannot draw any conclusions from such surveys - many have found good reasons for questioning their veracity - from my standpoint as Chief Executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), this highlights a concerning level of ignorance about the 20th century’s defining episode.

Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of HMDT

Our own poll conducted not so long ago found that one in 20 British adults did not believe that the Holocaust really happened, and 8% took the view that descriptions of the genocide were exaggerated. Surveys in other European nations have produced similar outcomes. When people have little knowledge or understanding of the Holocaust, they are more likely to be vulnerable to hostile ideologies that are promoted by those who deliberately seek to distort the Holocaust.

The raison d’etre of the organisation I lead is the commemoration of the millions of lives destroyed in the Holocaust, and in the genocides that followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and DarfurAt HMDT, we believe that we can learn from genocide – for a better future.

We must continue to honour the past in order to create a safer present and a better future. That includes keeping the truth alive and challenging the kind of racismhatred, and intolerance that energised Nazis to commit mass murder. We provide excellent resources for commemorating and teaching about the greatest crimes of modern times.

In the years leading to the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats. Fifty years laterHutu perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 described Tutsis as 'cockroaches'. Coincidence? It seems unlikely. There are recognised patterns in the lead up to genocide – Gregory H Stanton developed the 10 stages of genocide map – and if history teaches us anything, it is that civilisation is very fragile. We know that hostility based on identity has not gone awayOne only has to look at the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China or Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. 

We may be misguided to draw too many firm conclusions from the recent American survey, but we should take note of its indicative picture: that too many young American people are woefully ignorant about what many would consider basic facts about the Holocaust, an episode which shook the foundations of civilisation.

It strengthens our resolve to ensure our work at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust continues: to reflect and commemorate, to learn from the past, and to take action for a better future. Because when racism, discrimination, hatred and intolerance remain unchallenged, they become normalised, and can generate an environment in which genocide can take place. 

Testimony from survivors are of crucial importance. Over the years, I have had the rare privilege and great honour of hearing Holocaust survivors share their experiences. The precious few remaining continue to do so in the hope that future generations would never have to live through the horror of genocide. Sharing experiences of profound trauma is itself often traumatic for survivors – but they do so because we must hear them.

In the immortal words of Holocaust survivor, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, ‘anyone who listens to a witness, becomes a witness’. So I urge you to read some truly inspiring life stories from survivors, learn about the past and guard against identity-based hostility and misinformation in the world today.