This week’s virtual whole school Senior Assembly was led by Mr Sharp (History Teacher) who reflects on the Holocaust to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. First, monitor Megan, opened the assembly with her monitor’s address – a piece which all monitors deliver during their time in Upper Sixth.
Tomorrow, 27th of January is Holocaust Memorial Day. Tomorrow will mark 66 years since the day in 1945 when the Russian army entered Auschwitz Birkenau the largest of the Nazi extermination camps. Holocaust Memorial Day is for everyone to remember those who have died in that Holocaust under Nazi persecution and also those killed in other genocides that have taken place since then such as in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Now, I want us for a moment to think about the kind of things that happen to you if you are a victim of genocide. Unpleasant as it may be a policeman, or a soldier comes to your house to take you away for questioning to separate you from your family. You and your whole family could be rounded up and with others and made to match for days on end and then forced to work as slave labour. You could end up forced to live in filthy overcrowded conditions, kept starving and at risk of disease. You could be humiliated, sexually assaulted or raped. These are just some of the things that you might endure as a victim of genocide, whether you are killed or whether you become a survivor. What have you done to deserve this treatment? All this happened to you because you were you. Because in someone else’s eyes there’s something about you that makes you different, that means you don’t conform, that makes you an outsider. This could be your religion, could be your nomadic lifestyle, could be your ethnicity or sexuality, it could even be because you are educated or speak a foreign language, or you just wear glasses.
Now some of these things that I have mentioned happened to Var Ashe Houston, a woman who now lives in Surrey. But in 1975 Var was a teacher in Cambodia when she and her daughters were taken from their home and marched into the countryside and forced to work as slave labourers on the collective farm by the Khmer Rouge. Many hundreds of thousands died from disease there from malnutrition and from exhaustion. Var’s husband was one of the many who died as a result of the Khmer Rouge policies and brutality between 1975 and 1979.
If you think Cambodia is a faraway country consider Pierre Seil a young man living in Eastern France, arrested by the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo in 1941 and sent to a concentration camp to be ‘re-educated’. His crime, he was gay. As a result, he was humiliated, beaten and brutalised. He never spoke of his ordeal for many years after he was released because being homosexual was still against the law in France, even after the Germans left, and France is not far away. Nor is Poland where Helen Aronson was 12 years old when the German army occupied her town in 1939 and she was forced from her home and separated from her father and taken to live in the ghetto of Łódź, a part of another city where Polish Jews were forced to work in desperately crowded and diseased conditions. Kept on a diet that led to starvation. She was just one of only a few from the Łódź Ghetto not sent to be murdered at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. But her father was murdered. Helen settled in England after the war, but she rarely spoke of her terrible experiences, few people were interested, some didn’t believe her.
If you think the 1940s were a long time ago then remember that genocide is not something that only happened in the second world war, carried out by Nazis under orders from Hitler. Genocide has happened in plenty of other places since 1945: in Cambodia in the 1970s, in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s and in Darfur in the 21st Century. Some of you may know what has been happening recently to the Rohingya in Burma and as the Uighur people in China bears many of the hallmarks of genocide.
Now, Holocaust Memorial Day exists to make sure that the experiences of people like Var, like Pierre and like Helen are not forgotten. Their stories are important for us to know. They are survivors of the genocide, but their experiences have marked them for the rest of their lives. The fate of millions of others who have died in acts of genocide are also important for us to know about. 6 million died in Nazi Holocaust including 1.5 million children. An estimated 1-3 million died in Cambodia. A million died in Rwanda in just 100 days in 1994 and between 2 and 400,000 have died in Darfur since 2003.
These are important things to know about, not just because of the terrible scale of what has taken place, it’s important because these things do still happen. It is important because these things can happen again in the future and in new places. So, it is important we are able to recognise the kinds of things that can lead to genocide.
Now the road to genocide usually starts with a lie. In the case of the Nazi Holocaust that was an elaborate lie. The lie was that Jewish leaders had secretly conspired to take over the world and that Jewish people were somehow biologically both distinct and inferior to the Nazi idea of what it was to be a human. Now this was a lie that Jewish people and some other people groups too were both a threat and that their lives were of less value, in fact were of no importance. This lie became very powerful because it fed on the fears that many people had. It had powerful supporters who made sure it was heard by everyone and over time the lie became accepted as fact. The lie allowed Jewish people and some other groups to be classified as different. It led to them being viewed as undesirable and so then they could be discriminated against, dehumanised, persecuted and eventually exterminated. Lies can be very powerful things if enough people want to believe them. If enough people don’t trouble to question them.
Lies can be used to insight people to do terrible things. Genocide may be ordered by leaders, but it can only take place if there are many willing collaborators. Most of the 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed in Rwanda in 1994 were murdered by people they knew, people from their own village, their neighbours, those had even been their friends. So, all of us have a role preventing genocide.
Now marking Holocaust Memorial Day this year will not involve the community events which usually take place in the normal year. But we can all still play our part in a way that will make a difference. In a minute we will join together to listen to music and a poem performed by members of our own community. As we listen and look at the etchings created by another member of the King’s community.
We can mark Holocaust Memorial Day in a moment of silence and of reflection, remembering the suffering of those who have been killed and of those who have survived. Even better we can find time to educate ourselves more about the stories of those like Var, Pierre and Helen perhaps by visiting the Holocaust Memorial Day website hmd.org.uk. Or we could read a book about other similar experiences like Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Once’ or Anne Frank’s Diary or Tom Palmers ‘After the War’. We can make ourselves aware of the kind of ‘hate- speech’ that still exists today. The type of language designed to make us think of other people as different, or a threat, or as aliens. Being alert to it can help us all to recognise it, to reject it, to challenge it, and to confront it. But most of all we mustn’t forget. In the words of the Holocaust survivor and poet Elie Wiesel, “If we forget the dead will be killed a second time”.
You can view our previous Senior Assembly here.