Be the Light in the Darkness

In the weeks following Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, the world continues to mark the day with events and discussions about how we must learn from the past in order to prevent a repitition of history. As persecution of religious groups continues to grow in the world, this universal message has never been more important. This year many leaders have highlighted prejudice and persecution of religious groups, such as the Uyghur Muslims in China and the displaced Muslim Rohingya community who fled Myanmar and are now refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh. This last group is just one that Beyond Conflict is seeking to help through our mental health work.

To highlight these issues, Beyond Conflict would like to share a comment piece to mark HMD from Michael Newman, the Chief Executive of the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR), which represents Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees in the UK. Like BC, AJR is committed to breaking the cycle of conflict and persecution through addressing the wounds of the past and supporting the peaceful co-existence of all religious communities everywhere.

By Michael Newman, Chief Executive of the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR).

International Holocaust Memorial Day has instilled in society the importance of the act of remembrance and provides everyone with the chance to reflect on the lives that were lost. The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is Be the Light in the Darkness, which also presents us with an opportunity to consider what we all, as individuals, can do to honour and remember, and to teach and learn.

The sight that met the eyes of the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front as they entered Auschwitz on 27 January 1945 was the revelation of the heinous crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. And while Auschwitz is the most notorious and identifiable of the network of Nazi death and concentration camps, Europe is littered with the corpses of innocent victims whose only crime was to have been born into a particular faith or way of life, or whose beliefs were contrary to the twisted ideology of their tormentors.

The deaths of six million Jewish people, including one and a half million children, as well as hundreds of thousands of other minorities, or as the Nazis defined them: undesirables, are incomprehensible not least because there are simply no records for some of those who perished.

Contrast that with the efforts to capture testimony of the survivors and refugees who experienced Nazi oppression. As we mark the 80th anniversary this year of The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR), the over-riding focus of our work remains the delivery of social welfare services to the refugees and survivors who fled and survived National Socialist oppression. It is our mission to represent and care for this unique community at this critical time in their lives.

Our members very much want to ensure that their own experiences and the fate suffered by their family members who did not survive are taught to future generations. Therefore, it is equally our mission to commemorate the lives and contributions to society of the refugees, and to combat antisemitism by supporting teaching and learning about the Holocaust.

To complement our sponsorship of Holocaust education and memorialisation projects and programmes, we have developed resources of our own and are accumulating testimony through our Refugee Voices Archive, a ground-breaking audio-video collection available at the world’s leading Holocaust studies institutions that captures the experiences of the refugees and survivors, that chronicle their lives and preserve for posterity the eye-witness accounts of one of the darkest chapters in human history.

Moreover, through these materials we have been able to preserve the culture, heritage, traditions and customs of the refugees so that this history can be studied in all its complexity and be remembered in perpetuity. That is the essence of remembrance.

Equally accessible is the AJR’s collection of My Story books through which we have documented the lives of the refugees and survivors through the production of personalised life story books. For it is the sharing of individual stories – much more so than impersonal statistics and dates – which brings the past into the present. When the eyewitnesses to the horrors of Nazism are no longer with us, it is imperative that we find innovative ways of sharing their experiences in all of their humanity and nuance.

Also, speaking in schools today much as their parents and grandparents did, the second and third generations have a unique perspective to share that sheds light not only on the human stories of the Holocaust, but also its legacy in our society today. And so it can be said that those who take up the mantle of family heritage and remembrance are themselves exemplifying the theme of being the light in the darkness.

As we move from living to documented history our mission is also strengthened by harnessing the warnings from the past with the emerging technology so that this and subsequent generations can engage and interact.

With the horrors fresh in their minds, the refugees who founded the AJR in 1941 and began publishing the AJR Journal in January 1946 – since when it has been produced uninterruptedly – paved the way for Holocaust remembrance today and in the future from documenting contemporaneous accounts to the placing of harrowing search notices. I’m pleased to say that the entire archive of the AJR Journal has been digitised and can be accessed online.

But while at that time narratives were not disputed out of deference to the survivors, we live today in a world where truth is expendable and where the pursuit and discovery of historical fact can be outweighed by the desire to preserve a national narrative. And so, our mission takes on a new dimension: to engage in innovative ways as part of our Remembering and Rethinking programme. Equally, we must be unafraid to engage in critical thinking so that Holocaust denial and distortion can be challenged and exposed for the antisemitism it attempts to conceal.

And so, these first-hand accounts are also an invaluable resource to combat antisemitism and the growing phenomenon of Holocaust distortion, a topic addressed by the IHRA, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, of which I am proud to be a member of the UK delegation, with the launch last week of their Global Task Force’s Recommendations for Recognizing and Countering Holocaust Distortion. As well as intended to increase awareness of Holocaust distortion among policy and decision-makers, the recommendations are a practical resource, to understand the forms Holocaust distortion can take and how to address them so that the truth is protected.

The light in the darkness were the townsfolk of Venlo in the Netherlands who handed out chocolate to the cheering children on the Kindertransport as they crossed over from Germany; the officials like Frank Foley and Arthur Dowden, who issued visas by the thousand enabling Jews to flee Nazi Germany and Austria; the Quakers who facilitated those journeys; those who hid their neighbours and those who resisted like Sophie and Hans Scholl and their fellow White Rose members. It also extends to those in this country who opened their doors to Kinder and those who gave a home to people, like my grandmother, who came as domestics; in her case arriving on 31 August 1939.
As the grandson of a refugee and the Chief Executive of the AJR, I have both a personal and professional interest to preserve the memories but this is a joint mission.

Above all, we strive to contribute to the building of cultures of remembrance. Just as the Wannsee House, where the Final Solution was planned is now a Holocaust museum and the former Gestapo prison in Cologne, where my great grandfather was imprisoned, is now a documentation centre, and other sites of persecution now stand as monuments to the terror that was unleashed. We seek to emulate what these memorials represent in Germany where the placing of Stolpersteine, stumbling stones, form part of the fabric of society; where a culture of remembrance, Erinnerungskultur, has been inculcated; where the lives that were lost and atrocities that were committed are not forgotten, but taught and studied and learnt.

Evincing the message of Never Again, on International Holocaust Memorial Day, it is also our duty to speak out about the plight of those other communities who also suffered at the hands of the Nazis; the Roma and Sinti, LGBTQ+, the disabled and those whose political views threatened the Nazi worldview. And also those who were similarly persecuted in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Dafur, and those who at this very moment are the targets of oppression, including Uigher Muslims in China.

It was famously said that a Jewish refugee was someone who had lost everything except his accent but by connecting with our testimonies and resources, we aim to inspire and facilitate the everlasting transmission of memory and work towards accomplishing the AJR’s vision: a society free of antisemitism that remembers the Holocaust and those who were murdered, and that honours the Jewish refugees and survivors of Nazi oppression.

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