2015: The Year in Review

2015 was a hugely commemorative year. Not only did we mark 70 years since the end of the Second World War and, therefore, the collapse of Nazism and the Third Reich; we also marked 70 years since the Holocaust, one of the largest and most vicious genocidal campaigns in human history, was brought to an end. Over 60 million people died during the Second World War; of these, approximately 5.7 million died during the Holocaust, through gassing, shooting, torture, punishment, starvation and disease. We shall never know exactly how many innocent souls were lost.
On Holocaust Memorial Day - 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz - thousands of events were held to pause and reflect on this huge, senseless loss of life. At Auschwitz itself, the infamous gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau was housed in a huge pavilion, providing the most 'iconic' and infamous of backdrops to survivors who shared their stories and Museum staff and ministers who pledged to keep the Memorial open and conserved. The grief was still very visible on many faces.
In the UK, Prince Charles, the Prime Minister and the Chief Rabbi spoke at the national televised event, staged in Westminster. Schools, colleges, town halls and community centres across Great Britain participated in Holocaust Memorial Day and vowed - in keeping with this year's theme - to 'Keep the Memory Alive'.

The results of the Prime Minister's Holocaust Commission were publicised: the government has pledged £50 million to create a purpose-built national Learning Centre and Memorial, to be located in London. A project to capture all survivor and liberator testimony on film is already underway; furthermore, extra funds were allocated to a 3D mapping project of Bergen-Belsen and the digitisation of archives at The Wiener Library. All this is still very much in the planning stages, but will hopefully produce a fitting tribute to those whose lives were affected by the Holocaust, and will be instrumental in teaching new generations about this dark period of history.
One scholar who was part of the Commission who sadly shall not see the finished results is Professor David Cesarani. The academic world, particularly the fields of Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, was left reeling after his unexpected death in October, aged just 58. Indeed, Professor Cesarani was integral to the very establishment of Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, and contributed his wealth of knowledge to exhibitions, the media and various advisory boards. His legacy will continue through his publications (including those that have not yet been released) and the work of the Holocaust Research Centre at Royal Holloway, in which I am honoured to play a part.

David was, at the very least, becoming a great part of my academic life, but 2015 also saw the deaths of numerous people who were either witnesses to the Holocaust or researched its origins and operation. Sir Martin Gilbert, another British historian of the Holocaust, died in February this year; Robert Wistrich, a leading scholar on anti-Semitism based at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, passed away in May. Shortly afterwards, in July, we lost the incredible Sir Nicholas Winton. Through his involvement in the Czech Kindertransport, Winton managed to save 669 Jewish children from Nazi terror and bring them safely to the UK. He lived to the remarkable age of 106.
A number of survivors of the Holocaust also passed away this year. They include actress Bettine Le Beau, aged 83, and 88-year-old Thomas "Toivi" Blatt, one of very few people to have survived the uprising in Sobibor in 1943.
May their memories and legacies live on through the stories they told, the work they carried out and the people they knew.

Personally, I have been very fortunate to be involved in a number of events this year. I have attended conferences in London, Krakow and Budapest; visited (and revisited) Krakow-Płaszów, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sachsenhausen; participated in Northwestern University's Summer Institute in Evanston, USA; and spoken to a number of different groups regarding Holocaust education. Just a few weeks ago, I also received the fantastic news that I have been granted a scholarship with which to carry out my PhD research, which I shall be starting in the New Year.
The highlight, however - as ever - has been meeting and working with Holocaust survivors. They really are incredible people, and this 70th anniversary has emphasised what precious time we have left with many of them.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for following and supporting my blog, even if you only ever visit once. The readership and the positive comments that people pass on are what inspire me to keep writing and sharing news related to the Holocaust and its education. In the New Year, I hope to publish blogs relating to my recent trips to Budapest and Berlin, and look forward to the other opportunities that will inevitably appear.

I wish everyone a peaceful and prosperous 2016.

Photographs from the BBC and the Holocaust Educational Trust