Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, Reform Judaism’s Community Educator gave an address at the Greater London Assembly Holocaust Memorial Day service with the Mayor of London on Holocaust Memorial Day.
I can’t remember the first time I was told about the Shoah, or the Holocaust. It feels like somehow I always knew. Stories of my grandmothers cousins, shot into the graves they had dug for themselves in a forest weren’t exactly the stuff of bedtime stories, but they were a part of the collective family history that I just somehow knew, and that made the horrors of the 20th Century both more personal, and less shocking, because it was just there.
I do remember the first time my grandmother spoke to me directly about her experiences, and it so important that testimonies such as we have heard today are preserved.
Life carried on because there was life to be lived, the world needed improving, and while it was irreparably changed, life is not something we are good at giving up on collectively.
My children haven’t heard my grandparent’s stories yet. They are still young, but so far they aren’t aware that less than 80 years ago the face and future of Judaism was changed forever. They also aren’t aware that the world said never again, and has broken that promise not once, not twice, but over and over, in Srebrenica, Rwanda, Cambodia and more.
For many of my parents’ generation, being Jewish was hard to separate from the stories of the Shoah. The memory of the 6 million lost, who could have done such good in the world had they lived, had to be honoured. For my children, while the Shoah remains an incredibly painful and personal piece of history, I hope it does not define their Judaism. Their Judaism should be a beautiful way of bringing meaning and community into their lives, not fear. But I hope it does define their understanding of what it means to be Europeans, or citizens of the world. The Shoah has nothing to do with Judaism or being Jewish. It happened to us. Not because of us. The Shoah has a lot to do with being a part of the Western world, and is something we as a society must continue to learn from.
For citizens in Nazi Germany, there were many, small incremental steps that allowed the Holocaust to unfold. A German Professor interviewed after the war said:
“One doesn’t see exactly where or how to move.[…] Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk alone; you don’t want to “go out of your way to make trouble.” Why not? – Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.”
For me, learning these lessons from everyday citizens in Nazi Germany is essential. If we know that allowing things to get slowly worse, and waiting for the collective to rise up, can ultimately lead to genocide, we must take personal responsibility. We are all uncertain too, all fearful. And of course in this country we hate to meddle or get involved with another person’s business. But carrying on regardless despite knowing what it means to be a bystander, cannot be an option if we are to go on with life after the many genocides of the last century. The result of not standing up and calling out hatred, xenophobia, homophobia, attacks on the disabled, racism, Anti-Semitism is an emboldening of those who hate to act without impunity. It feels like there has not been a more important time to learn this lesson in the UK, at least not in my lifetime.
We live in a world where 24 hour news and social media makes it difficult for us to claim we don’t know what is going on around us. Yet it easily becomes overwhelming, hard to tell what really happened from the cacophony of voices, and far too regularly it becomes a mouthpiece of hatred. I often have to remind myself not to read the comments!
We want to protest, we want things to be different, but it isn’t always clear how to. The Shoah teaches me that I cannot hide behind my own uncertainty and fear. I must be an upstander in my own community when I see hatred of difference and otherness. But perhaps being an upstander isn’t only about challenging the negative where we find it, but about finding ways each and every day to reach out to others with love and compassion. The diversity that makes London great, also makes each of us as individuals stronger in our sense of self, and more comfortable with neighbours who are from all over the world. Yet in Germany and Bosnia we saw that it doesn’t take much for neighbours to turn a blind eye to one another, or even to become complicit in dehumanising the other. Life goes on, but we must live it differently, and take inspiration from those brave upstanders before us who rejected hatred, and refused to accept that others might be less than them just because they are different to them.
We cannot forget, but we can choose to live a life that works to ensure it is never possible again.