Holocaust Memorial Day is timely warning that freedom must never be taken for granted

After a week that has been marked by uncomfortable headlines and irritable exchanges about the possible forced mobilisation of UK citizens in the event of a war, it seems apposite that tomorrow is International Holocaust Memorial Day.

The theme of this year’s event is Fragility of Freedom, reflecting that in every genocide that has taken place, those who were targeted for persecution first had their freedom restricted and removed, before many of them were murdered.

As we all know, genocide rarely just happens, rather it is the conclusion of a process of alienation, discrimination and persecution that can happen insidiously over time, often without the subjects even realising where things are headed. At its roots is the classification and division of people into “them” and “us”, often because insignificant and largely irrelevant differences are either not resolved, or become exaggerated maliciously and intentionally by those likely to gain benefit from driving such human divisions.

Sadly, some three quarters of a century after the horrors of the Second World War we seem not only to have failed to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, but the world is in very deep danger of repeating them.

January 27th is significant because at around 9am on this day in 1945 a soldier from the 100th Infantry Division of the Russian Red Army entered Auschwitz concentration camp and became the first person from the outside world to witness the full extent of the horrors that had taken place inside. Incredibly this received little media coverage at the time, as the camp discovery was an aside to the Red Army’s primary objective of getting to Berlin ahead of the allies. It wasn’t until the Western Allies arrived in Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau in April 1945 that the liberation of the camps received global coverage.

However, recent historic research has confirmed what many had already suspected – the existence of the Nazi death camps and the horrific activities being carried out there weren’t the secret discovery that everyone condemned so vigorously at Nuremberg – many nations and political leaders had known only too well what was going on, and there had been an unforgivable tardiness in addressing the atrocities. Material accessed in 2017 from the United Nations archives revealed that the UK, America and the former Soviet Union had known as early as December 1942 that more than two million Jews had been murdered systematically by the Nazis, and a further five million were at severe risk of being killed.

As UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden told the British parliament that very month: “The German authorities, not content with denying to persons of Jewish race in all the territories over which their barbarous rule extends, the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people.”

By the Spring of 1942 there was still an inexplicable reluctance to act. Viscount Cranborne, a minister in the war cabinet of Winston Churchill, said that the Jews shouldn’t be considered a special case, and also remarked that the British Empire was already too full of refugees to offer a safe haven to any more. And whilst Britain and other nations vacillated in an shameful manner, the murders continued.

What was to become The Holocaust really began as early as 1933, when the Nazis came into power in Germany on the back of a nation that had sunk into a deep economic depression and was struggling to find the demons they imagined to be responsible for their misfortune. German Jews found themselves the subject of a rolling programme of legislative changes that slowly but systematically targeted them and eroded their rights and liberties. The insidious but ideologically convincing justifications for the impositions meant that most observers were largely indifferent to what was taking place until it was too late, or they were too disempowered, to act.

In the years after the war, Holocaust memory remained largely confined to the survivors and their communities, but in recent decades it has become quite properly central to Western historical consciousness and now represents the primary symbol of the contradiction of the human capacity to evil, and the overriding dignity of the human spirit.

Although the term applies principally to the systematic extermination of the Jewish people, Holocaust Memorial Day now also acknowledges the millions of people from other groups (including Catholics) who were targeted and murdered by the Nazis, as well as those killed during more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

(It is still shocking to remind ourselves that the world stood by in 1994 as Hutu extremists shattered the fragile freedom in Rwanda, following decades of tension and violence, culminating in the murder of over one million Tutsis in just one hundred days between 7th April and 15th July.)

Central to this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the warning that, even in the most apparently stable and established of democracies, freedom can still be a very fragile thing. One only has to cast an eye across the current European landscape to see the evidence of this, and just how easy it is for freedoms to be eroded, and for countries to slide into war and unforgivable human destruction.

The concept of forgiveness is one that is rooted deeply in Jewish law, where it presents a profound challenge to anyone who has been in any way impacted by the destructive aspect of human nature. Judaism teaches that God hard-wired forgiveness into us at the outset so that through the process of sin and reconciliation both the forgiver and the forgiven could experience the profound effect of God’s love. But Jewish law also teaches that forgiveness is not unconditional, but is dependent on the perpetrator engaging with the victim to perform teshuvah, or ‘return’, in which they have to show not only the deepest remorse for their actions, but a willingness to make reparations to the victim. Equally, if the victim refuses repeatedly to engage fully with the process of reconciliation, the blame for the offense passes from the perpetrator to the victim.

It’s a theologically complex and demanding position, that in many respects this helps our understanding of the Jewish perspective on the terrible acts perpetrated by the Nazis during World War Two. Given that the perpetrators died utterly unrepentant and unwilling to make reparations (if such a thing were even possible), and the victims are no longer here to forgive, many Jews feel with justification that it would dishonour the victims of the Holocaust and degrade the moral fabric of their faith to ever simply ‘forgive and forget’.

So we are left with commemoration, a challenging but necessary process that enables victims to remember, but also to use their strengths and beliefs to make something good out of bad.

Perhaps this year more than any recently, the narrative around International Holocaust Memorial Day speaks to the immediately perilous position that our world finds itself in.

As well as the conflicts that we’re familiar with – such as Ukraine and Gaza – we have Uyghur Muslims in China facing forced relocation and ‘re-education’ that threatens to eradicate their culture, and other limits to free expression, free movement and freedom of worship, whilst hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, having escaped religious persecution in Myanmar. Bloody conflict is also raging in the Darfur region of Africa where the systematic killing of ethnic Darfuri people which has occurred during the War in Darfur and the ongoing War in Sudan has become known as the first genocide of the 21st century.

Closer to home, the media coverage and subsequent discussions this week in the wake of military leaders suggesting Europe needs to prepare for all out war with Russia sounds like a menacing echo of the late 1930s, and has many people concerned that the freedoms and liberties that we’ve all taken so much for granted are about to be threatened in a way that we have previously considered unimaginable.

As some commentators have warned, our hard-won freedoms should never be taken for granted, and need to be defended at all costs. However, we may soon need to decide what level of price we’re willing to pay if we’re to avoid the kind of bleak and oppressive future that others have had to confront in the recent past.

When Holocaust memorial Day was created – on 27th January 2000 – representatives from 46 governments around the world met in Stockholm to discuss Holocaust education, remembrance and education. At the end of the meeting all attendees signed a declaration committing to preserving the memory of those who have been murdered in the Holocaust.

Among its pledges was a profound commitment to raise awareness of the dangers of human conflict, and its catastrophic consequences:

“With humanity still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils … We must strengthen the moral commitment of our peoples, and the political commitment of our governments, to ensure that future generations can understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect upon its consequences.’

With the world currently teetering on the precipice of an uncontrollable and unpredictable conflict, tomorrow’s Holocaust Memorial Day is a very timely moment to reflect on what we have gained through the suffering of others, and what we might lose if we can’t somehow resolve our human differences.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian



Each year people from across the UK take part in our Light the Darkness national moment for Holocaust Memorial Day. At 8pm on 27th January people across the nation will light candles and put them safely in their windows to remember those who were murdered for who they were, and to stand against prejudice and hatred today.

Iconic buildings and landmarks will light up in purple during this powerful national moment of commemoration and solidarity. For the first time, this year six million candles will be lit in a digital vigil across the nation’s billboards – six million candles for six million lives lost during the Holocaust.

You can also become part of the conversation about Light the darkness online by sharing a photo of your candle on TwitterFacebook or Instagram using the hashtags #HolocaustMemorialDay and #LightTheDarkness.

To learn more about Holocaust Memorial Day, go to: https://www.hmd.org.uk/