Holocaust Memorial Day 2017: How Can Life Go On?

The theme for this year's Holocaust Memorial Day, 'How Can Life Go On?' is rather broad and can be interpreted in several different ways. The following is a summary of my own thoughts on this theme, a large part of which were presented today during a commemorative ceremony at a London secondary school.

Every year, on 27 January, we mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Why this date? It was on 27 January 1945 that part of the Soviet Army came across a place of horror in southern Poland. They found around 7,000 people - sick, dying, emaciated - living in near-primitive conditions in poorly constructed barracks, starving to death. This place was Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp.
We must remember, however, that for many survivors of the Nazi network of camps, the tragedy was still not over. Some camps, such as Bergen-Belsen, were not liberated until April 1945. Although the gas chambers had ceased to function, thousands still died during, or in the immediate aftermath of, the end of the Holocaust and the end of World War II.

Many survivors were able to rebuild their lives after the Holocaust. They moved abroad, made contact with whatever family might be left, created new families of their own. They allowed their lives to go on. On Holocaust Memorial Day, we pay homage to those survivors. We also pay homage to survivors of other genocides that have similarly continued their lives: survivors from Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and others.

But we must also pay homage to those whose lives did not continue; who were sent to the gas chambers in German-occupied Poland, or died in the killing fields of Cambodia, or were hacked to death with machetes by their former neighbours and friends in Rwanda.

We pay homage to those who took their own lives in the wake of these atrocities. Having lost their families, their homes, their livelihoods, they simply felt that life could not continue.

We pay homage to those who carried out acts of rescue during times of genocide, risking their own lives to save others.

We pay homage to those who resisted their perpetrators for as long as possible, finding the courage to give their lives meaning when extermination loomed large.

We pay homage to those who have helped survivors rebuild their lives in the wake of genocide, and made it possible for them to carry on sharing their testimony, so that we might learn something about the power of man's inhumanity, but also of his resilience.

The world feels like a dark place at the moment. In Europe we have seen the rise of the far-right, of racism and anti-Semitism, as well as other hate crimes. In the wake of the British referendum regarding our status in the European Union, reports of hate crimes increased significantly - it seemed as though at least some who voted to leave did so by following a rhetoric of 'us and them', and by trying to blame Britain's problems on the minority groups that have made their homes here. Just a week ago, the 45th President of the United States was inaugurated. The new leader of the 'free world' has made no attempt to hide his contempt for certain groups, and even now, is drawing up plans for a wall along the Mexican border. In times like these, we should not be building walls - we should be breaking them down. We should be communicating with each other, speaking out against such intolerance to create a fair, free society for everyone.

Life should be able to go on for all of us, respective of religion, nationality, gender, sexuality or background, without the threat of persecution, humiliation or violence. Don't be afraid to speak out against prejudice and intolerance - such acts of social courage are the only way we can at least try to achieve a more cohesive, united community.