How to bear witness? International Holocaust Remembrance Day

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Eli Wiesel’s words stress the very importance of remembering those events we might rather forget, of paying attention to what might be more pleasantly ignored. Events take place throughout the year to commemorate victims of war and genocide, and International Holocaust Remembrance Day is just one example of attempts to honour those lost, comfort those left behind and, perhaps most importantly, keep such tragedy in mind in the hope we may be educated against letting it happen again. With remembrance so important, however, we are inevitably drawn to question how one should remember, how we can ensure a respectful and dignified means of educating and honouring without offending or causing even more pain.

The very existence of an international day of remembrance illustrates that efforts to commemorate in a “proper” or “correct” way remain at the forefront of many minds. In 2005, the UN general assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps toward the end of the Second World War. It was decided that rather than having national days of remembrance, which are still observed from country to country, there would be an international day of memorial in which every country could partake, or every nation within the UN at the very least. January 27th, the liberation date of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest camp, was chosen to mark the occasion.

Since 2006, events marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day across the UN have included the unveiling of a mobile exhibit at the UN headquarters, New York, organised by “Yad Vashem”, a Jewish group who document and commemorate the holocaust. The exhibit was entitled “No Child’s Play… Remembrance and Beyond” and focused on the experience of child victims of the holocaust, showing their toys, pictures, diaries and other examples of what their lives would have been like. Showing of course has a much bigger impact than telling, and exhibitions such as this would have stayed with visitors forever. In addition, the designation of a special “day” to be put aside would continue to remind the public and those in power of the impact of genocide on people of all ages. According to then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, it served as “an important reminder of the universal lessons of the Holocaust, a unique evil which cannot simply be forgotten.”

The importance, therefore, of taking time and effort to commemorate events such as the Holocaust which took the lives of an estimated 6 million Jewish people among millions more from other groups, while countless lives were left irreparably devastated, is fairly easy to understand. Problems, however, can often lie in the manner by which we choose to remember. With any atrocity, this can be a contentious and potentially explosive issue. For example, as most of us do not need to be reminded, in November 2015 terror attacks in Paris took the lives of 130 people, left over 300 injured and an entire city shattered and devastated. How to commemorate it? Facebook gave its users the opportunity to change their profile pictures temporarily to include a filter of the tricolour. While the intent was undoubtedly good, and many people felt this showed support to victims of terrorism and assured the world that the events would not go unnoticed or quickly forgotten, many took a different stance. The action was labelled “slacktivism”, and those who had chosen to use the filter were accused of doing so for attention, or mistakenly “thinking they were helping.” People’s intent in commemorating events such as this can often be misconstrued, and this can lead to a lot of distress caused by something which, like the Facebook filter, was only originally meant as a show of support. It was argued that the flag idea wrongly singled out France as the only affected nation, and also that people might take the attitude that they had “done their bit” by simply clicking a Facebook link, which of course would not be enough to combat terrorism or provide any real assistance to its victims across the globe.

When it comes to a globally-recognised issue such as Holocaust memorial, much more is done than simply clicking a button on social media, and one can’t help but feel that adding a star of David or similar symbol to our Facebook or Twitter pages would result in more injury and insult than anything else–not least because it would ignore so many other victims outside the Jewish community. How best to remember, then?

Regarding the holocaust, an overrunning theme tends to be unity: an emphasis is placed upon the fact that everyone was and is affected, everyone should be angered by what happened, and everyone should take time to remember. Last year, at the 70th anniversary celebrations of the liberation of Auschwitz, Prince Charles described the genocide as “an unparalleled human tragedy,” and “a warning and a lesson to all of us, to all faiths in all times.” The emphasis on the Holocaust as something relating to humanity as a whole, and not just to any one facet, is something which must be remembered and can easily be overtaken by a tendency in our minds to imagine two very definite sides against one another: “the Nazis” and “the Jews”, as if it were only a lesson to be learned in Germany, or only in Europe, or only in the West. The reality, as always, is much more complicated.

The commercialisation of the Holocaust has also caused issues for some. Locations such as Auschwitz have been labelled places of “dark tourism”, the description connoting that perhaps people take an unhealthy enjoyment or interest in visiting places were murderous or torturous acts have taken place. But surely visiting such places is better than ignoring them or denying their significance? Furthermore, anyone who has visited a concentration camp, where it is no exaggeration to say that an atmosphere, right down to a certain smell of death and devastation, lingers, will realise that this is not a pleasurable activity. It is a poignant one, frightening yes, but with none of the attached “thrill”. It is simply a place we can stand, look, touch, and try to get our heads around the fact that this was real. It actually happened, and not hundreds of years ago, either. Regardless of initial reasons for visiting such locations, the impact of such an experience cannot be disputed.

You go through all this, however, this touching and emotional experience, to exit via a café and a gift shop. Something about this feels a little wrong, but what historical site does not include these things? There is also the argument that without these elements, the trappings of tourism and history, a visit to a place like Auschwitz may prove simply too much to bear. And as many have stated, as long as the profits are going toward an appropriate cause, such as charities to support Holocaust survivors or research into the holocaust, then a shop selling informative material (rarely souvenirs) should not cause huge problems.

The idea of making profits from holocaust-related items came to the forefront last year, when Anne Frank Fonds who own the copyright (and therefore a share in profits) of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank tried to name Anne’s father, Otto, the co-author, along with translator Mirjam Pressler. This was to stop material entering into the public domain to be read freely, which should happen according to most European Law 70 years after the death of the author. To name Otto would extend the copyright owned by the foundation, prevent the diaries being published and viewed by anyone for free, and thus retain some profit from the 30 million copied sold for Anne Frank Fonds. A counter=argument put forward by French academic Olivier Ertzscheid, who published the Dutch language version of the diary online, is that “[the diary] belongs to everyone. And it is up to each one of us to weigh its importance”. Perhaps the diary should then be available for all. However, it must also be noted that Anne Frank Fonds uses these proceeds, according to their website, for “charitable and educational projects worldwide.” For the most part, the sale of books about the Holocaust and the profits made by historical sites such as the Anne Frank house and various concentration camps are not simply going into the pockets of evil corporations.

The only conclusion we may be able to come to for several years is that, no matter how you choose to remember, it is important that you do, and that you take time to do so. Whether we need a specific day to remind us, whether we make trips to see evidence of what happened, or whether we choose to purchase a book which will give us an insight into the human side of such tragedy, we must always remember. Most of us do not claim to be “helping”: we don’t know how. The important thing is that we recognise the importance of not allowing history to be repeated.


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May 2022
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