Reflections on 'Journeys': Holocaust Memorial Day 2014

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2014 yesterday, I travelled to the University of Worcester to co-host a screening of 'The Last Days', an Oscar-winning documentary film produced by Steven Spielberg. Released in 1998, it shares the stories of five Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust who recount their lives from 1944, when the Nazis invaded Hungary. As well as discussing what happened during the Holocaust, each survivor takes family members back to the places that they were incarcerated or where their families were murdered, beginning with the small, beautiful towns that each came from to places such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. It also includes interviews with a former SS doctor and a member of the Sonderkommando who worked in the gas chambers of Birkenau.
The documentary is fantastic, if somewhat overwhelmingly graphic at points. I decided to show this film in particular, however, as I believe it truly encompasses this year's theme for Holocaust Memorial Day, 'Journeys'. On the way home - itself an almost four-hour journey - I began to think about how this theme can be applied to all aspects of the Holocaust and what took place afterwards.

Firstly, every step towards the progression of Jews being imprisoned in ghettos and concentration camps and, eventually, murdered, can be seen as part of a 'journey'; the increased scale of persecution against the Jews and other minority groups which began in 1933. There are also the many physical journeys that took place: the Kindertransports that arrived in England; those forced to move into ghettos; inside cattle trucks towards 'the East'; the marches taking prisoners away from the camps; those, also, of the soldiers that liberated the camps and were appalled by the sights that greeted them. Unfortunately, though, life did not simply return to normal for former camp inmates once they had been liberated. Many made more journeys back to what was once their homes, to salvage property and to see if anyone else from their family would also return. There were also those survivors who left mainland Europe, seeking new lives in countries such as the United Kingdom, America and Israel.

Decades after the Holocaust, however, there are still somewhat related 'journeys' taking place. We as a society, for example, have become committed to educating and raising awareness about the Holocaust, when previously the subject was not openly discussed. Holocaust survivors travel the length and breadth of their countries - and sometimes others - to tell their stories to people who will never be able to even imagine what they have witnessed and experienced. From a personal point of view, I have made quite a few journeys relating to Holocaust education, beginning with visits to the former camps at Auschwitz, Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Similarly, over 22,000 British students have also made a one-day journey to Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust, trusting in the saying that 'hearing is not like seeing'. That number continues to grow. Education of the Holocaust, however, is one 'journey' without an end; it is up to us to ensure that the Holocaust and other genocides, before and after, are recognised and remembered, so that we may learn from them and inspire tolerance and good relations between people. Sadly, 'never again' is not a phrase that humankind has kept to - the examples of Darfur, Rwanda and Cambodia illustrate this clearly - but it is possible to at least prevent some instances of prejudice and discrimination from occurring.

My thanks to all of those who have commemorated, or will soon commemorate, Holocaust Memorial Day. It is so important to keep the Holocaust in our minds, even if only for one day of the year, when we can pause and reflect on one of the worst atrocities man has ever committed against his fellow man.