Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Usually I would have known it was coming up but this year I’m ashamed to say I had to see it trending of Twitter before I remembered. The pressures of working and looking after a young family especially in this period of economic uncertainty tends to distract us from these significant days, focussed as we are on more immediate issues.
Living in Germany as a child and having the chance to visit a concentration camp means I’ve grown up being quite aware of the Holocaust. I read a lot about it and actually wanted to be a ‘Nazi Hunter’ when I grew up (well that or have a shop, I was 11) and then went on to study the period at university. I knew it had involved not just Jews but also Roma Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and the disabled. I knew that as well as being exterminated in camps, people were worked to death or tortured and experimented on in the name of science. Most importantly I knew that this did not happen overnight or in secret. That over the preceding decade, power hungry politicians with much of the press on their side had been able to harness the anger and worry of the average man on the street, still recovering from the Great War and struggling to make ends meet and support their families during times of austerity, and focus it on groups in society that weren’t able to speak up for themselves. referring to them as vermin and dehumanising them to the point where people would stand by and let these things happen. It all seemed like a terrible but fascinating historical event until I got to meet and speak with a survivor of Auschwitz as part of my course. Then it all seemed frighteningly recent.
Sadly, what we call ‘the’ holocaust is not the only example of this happening. Just since I’ve been old enough to watch the news we’ve seen the same things happen in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sudan. On each occasion we have seen further examples of propaganda being used to isolate groups of people, laying the groundwork for the violence that was to follow. The Holocaust Memorial Day website has lots of examples of people who have spoken out about these events.
Gregory H Stanton listed 8 stages of genocide, a system of recognising when genocide is taking place, he knew that the moment that a name is taken away, or used in a derogatory fashion, we need to become vigilant about the dangers we could easily face. Calling someone a name, or referring to a group of people with a derogatory term allows a period of classification and dehumanisation to take place*.
The focus of this years Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Speak Up, Speak Out’ and they are asking us to carefully consider the way we use language in person, online or when speaking about other people and to speak out when others don’t. The parallels between these awful tragedies and our society in the UK aren’t always apparent but I think it’s important to be aware of the increasing levels of intolerance that we can see being expressed towards certain groups by the media and some political parties which start to make it seem acceptable for people to behave that way too and economic problems are only going to make this worse.
Did you know that even in the 21st Century in the UK over 50% of British Muslims have experienced a direct verbal attack? And of course this isn’t just an issue for different ethnic groups. Did you know that according to Mencap 90% of people with a learning disability have endured verbal or physical harassment or that only 7% of teachers respond if they hear homophobic language? We’re being asked to remember that these words can be powerful but so can ours.
You can pledge to challenge the language of hatred here and if you would like to blog about Holocaust Memorial Day you will also find loads of resources for bloggers. Go check it out.
*Source: Challenge the language of hatred (http://www.speakupnow.org.uk/challenge_the_language.php?action=download&id=13)
- World marks Holocaust Memorial Day (guardian.co.uk)