Each year 27th January is International Holocaust Day. This commemoration began in 2005 as a result of a United Nations resolution. The 27th January was chosen as a suitable date because it marked the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945.
More than 1.1 million people perished in Auschwitz, 960,000 of them Jews. When the Soviets arrived at the camp there were only 7000 prisoners left. In 2005, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, 1100 survivors came to the ceremony. In 2015 there were only 300. By 2025 there will be none left.
Will the memory live on? Memory is very fragile. One of the most powerful impulses driving the survivors was to bear witness. They had survived to bear witness so that nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen again. Very soon the flame of remembrance will have to be carried by those were fortunate not to have been witnesses. The common future of Christians and Jews demands that we remember. There is no future without memory.
The theme for this year’s Memorial Day is Ordinary People.
It is ordinary people who turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. The people persecuted and murdered are not punished because of crimes they committed, they are persecuted because they too are ordinary who belong to a particular group, Jews, Roma, Tutsi, Refugees, Immigrants.
Ordinary people were perpetrators, ordinary people were bystanders and did nothing, ordinary people were rescuers, ordinary people were witnesses, ordinary people were victims.
But all these people, except the victims, had choices. The victims had only limited choices, or ‘choiceless choices’.
The people who decided to get involved in persecution were ordinary people.
The people who made brave decisions to rescue, to hide, or to stand up the authorities were ordinary people. The people who decided to ignore what was going on, to remain bystanders were ordinary people.
The reason the theme of ordinary people was chosen this year is to challenge us, to help us realise that we can play a bigger part than we might imagine in challenging prejudice today.
One frightening example comes from a Holocaust survivor who remembered many years later: ‘And as a five year old, I could stand at the edge of the clearing where the trains were being loaded. People like sardines in those wooden trucks. And the people loading them in – they were railway men, they didn’t look terribly different from the railway men who check my tickets these days – they looked like ordinary people.’
When Hannah Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the principal organiser of the Holocaust, she expected to see a monster before her, but what she actually saw was a respectable, balding middle-aged businessman, an efficient bureaucrat who denied that he was anti-Semitic, but was just following orders, somebody like you and me. She coined the term ‘banality of evil’ to explain this.
Even the rescuers were ordinary people, ordinary people who did extraordinary things, risking their lives and that of their families to help others. And while they did extraordinary things most of played down their heroism.
This is what Sir Nicholas Winton, a man who rescued 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia, said: ‘Why are you making such a big deal of it? I just helped a little; I was in the right place at the right time.’
And as one victim said: ‘People may think that they have nothing to do with my story. But what happened to me, could happen to them – to people like yourself. It may sound too hard to believe but this doesn’t happen to strangers who live far away. I’m just an ordinary person. These terrible things can happen to people like us.’
Why talk about the Holocaust? Christians have to examine their conscience on the Holocaust. It was a Christian culture that permitted and facilitated the Holocaust. Some deliberately misquoted scripture to justify the Holocaust, Most of the worst perpetrators were baptised Christians. While some Christians worked heroically to save Jews, many more stood idly by through fear or indifference.
In a private audience with an official Jewish delegation Pope Francis greeted them as dear elder brothers and sisters. He said that to ‘due to our common roots, a Christian can-not be anti-Semitic. Humanity needs the joint witness of Christians and Jews in favour of respect for the dignity of man and woman created in the image and likeness of God, and in favour of peace which is above all God’s gift.’
The Pope has also written that ‘Catholics have recently discovered that the Jewish people remain for us the holy root from which Jesus was born. God has never neglected his faithfulness to the covenant with Israel, and that through the awful trials of this last century the Jews have preserved their faith in God. And for this, we the Church and the whole human family can never be sufficiently grateful to them.’
As Christians we need to consider ourselves as ‘guests in the house Israel and act accordingly.’ We are very much indebted to the Jewish faith. Jewish people have very little reason to be indebted to Christians.
There’s also another reason for talking about the Holocaust. There are certain people who always like to stir up trouble against those who are different. The terrible slaughter of Jews in the last century started off as a whispering campaign, false rumours, disinformation, a campaign that prepared many ordinary people to say nothing, see nothing, tolerate and even actively participate inhuman actions against Jews.
In recent weeks this country, Dublin has seen the beginning of a whispering campaign and disinformation being spread against migrants and immigrants. We must inform ourselves and refuse to be duped by right wing agitators, misguided at best, evil at worst.
We may be ordinary people, but as Christians we need to be proud of our Jewish roots and deplore anti-Semitism, prejudice and racism in any shape or form.
Míchéal MacCraith OFM