Friday 27th January was Holocaust Memorial Day. Holocaust Memorial Day is the day each year when we remember the six million Jewish people systematically persecuted and murdered by the Nazis and those who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Holocaust Memorial Day is when we remember Roma and Sinti people, disabled people, gay people, political opponents and many others who faced persecution and death at the hands of the Nazis. Holocaust Memorial Day is when we remember the millions of men, women and children, who have been murdered since in genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Genocide is when a group of people are targeted for destruction just because of who they are, such as their race or their religion. Genocide does not happen out of the blue, it is the result of prejudice and persecution which sees a group progressively treated differently to the rest of society. On Holocaust Memorial Day, we are reminded of what can happen when prejudice and persecution are left unchallenged, and of our responsibilities to stand against these processes when we see them in our own communities. The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 is ‘How can life go on?’. This theme asks us all think about how people who have experienced the horror of genocide can start to rebuild their lives. How communities and countries can heal after genocide and what role we in the UK have towards individuals, communities and nations who have survived genocide. Holocaust Memorial Day is not only about commemorating past genocides and honouring those who died, but about standing with those who survive. How can life go on? In July 2016 a well-known survivor of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel, died at the age of 87. I want to tell you his story. Speaking about re-building life as a genocide survivor, Elie Wiesel once said ‘For the survivor death is not the problem. Death was an everyday occurrence. We learned to live with Death. The problem is to adjust to life, to living. You must teach us about living.’ I call on all of you here to do just that. Whilst today we remember what happened during the Holocaust, and during the genocides since the Holocaust. Whilst we think about all those who were murdered simply because of who they were. Let us all also consider how we can support those who have survived genocide to learn about living – to rebuild their lives. At this very moment genocide is taking place in a part of Sudan called Darfur – and in places all around the world people are being forced to flee their homes because they are being persecuted. Many of these people are the refugees we hear about in the newspapers and on our televisions. Many of these people have been through unimaginable suffering, they have lost loved ones and have learned to live with death. Let us all today commit to do something, no matter how small, to support people who have fled such violence to re-build their lives. Let’s be welcoming and supportive to refugees in this country and be patient if they don’t speak English well or don’t know or understand cultural things that many of us take for granted. Let’s find out about where genocide is taking place, and tell others what we learn. Let’s stand up against prejudice and the processes of persecution. Let’s learn about and celebrate the lives and cultures of those who are the victims of genocide. And, like Elie Wiesel asked of us – let’s teach those who have survived genocide about living.
Eliezer ‘Elie’ Wiesel was born in 1928 in the small Romanian town of Sighet. He was the third of four children and the only son. He was 15 when, in spring 1944, German troops occupied Sighet. Soon after, he was moved with the rest of his family into one of the two ghettos created in the town. When both ghettos were liquidated the entire Jewish population of Sighet was deported to AuschwitzBirkenau. Wiesel later wrote about the conditions in the transport: ‘Lying down was not an option, nor could we all sit down. We decided to take turns sitting. …After two days of travel, thirst became intolerable, as did the heat.’ He recalled his arrival Auschwitz-Birkenau: ‘We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped in to the wagon.’ At the selection ramp of Birkenau, Wiesel was separated from his mother and sisters. This was the last time he ever saw his mother and his younger sister, Tzipora: ‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’ Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother.’ On the advice of an existing inmate, Wiesel lied about his age, claiming to be 18, to avoid being selected for extermination. Decades later, Wiesel recorded his feelings during his first hours in Auschwitz: ‘Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed…Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.’ After being held for some time at Auschwitz I, Wiesel and his father were transferred to Monowitz (Buna), a work camp that made up part of the extensive Auschwitz camp complex. There he worked as a slave labourer. The loss of his mother and sister and the daily brutality of the camp led Wiesel to question his faith: ‘My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now.’
As the Russian army advanced through Poland in early 1945, the Germans evacuated Auschwitz-Birkenau. Wiesel and his father marched for miles on foot before being transported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where his father died. Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald on 11 April 1945. After liberation, Wiesel was reunited with his older sisters, Beatrice and Hilda, in a French orphanage. He went on to study in Paris and became a journalist. For a decade after the Holocaust, he kept silent about his experiences, until a French journalist, François Mauriac, persuaded him to write. The result was Night, his acclaimed memoir, published for the first time in French in 1958. The book has been translated into over 30 languages and Wiesel went on to write over 60 books, fiction and non-fiction. He moved to the US in the 1950s and married in 1969. He had a son, Shlomo, in 1972. Appointed as the first Chair of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in 1976, Wiesel initiated Days of Remembrance, the United States’ annual commemoration of the Holocaust. At the Day of Remembrance ceremony in 2003, he spoke of the importance of commemoration: ‘All the rivers run to the sea, days come and go, generations vanish, others are born…What does one do with the memory of agony and suffering?…To remember means to lend an ethical dimension to all endeavors and aspirations.’ He returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time as part of his work with the President’s Commission and wrote about the visit in his memoir, And the Sea is Never Full: ‘Birkenau: I had not realised that the camp was quite small… It has swallowed an entire people…a people with hopes and memories.’ Alongside his work on Holocaust commemoration, Wiesel spoke out on behalf of Soviet Jews, victims of apartheid, victims of famine in Africa and victims of genocide in Cambodia, Bosnia and Darfur, amongst others. He was a Professor at Boston University and with his wife he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The citation for the award said: ‘His message is one of peace and atonement and human dignity. The message is in the form of a testimony, repeated and deepened through the works of a great author.’