Holocaust Memorial Day must both educate and commemorate

Sriya Varadharajan 27 January 2016

Holocaust Memorial Day is commemorated nationally each year on 27 January, and marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Allied Forces on this day in 1945. The day is an opportunity to reflect on the position of the Holocaust in public consciousness today, and to ensure that the memory of those who were murdered in and whose lives were touched by the Holocaust is honoured.

In 2016, Holocaust Memorial Day marks the 71st anniversary of this date, and the challenges facing the accurate and sensitive remembrance of these lives are ever-changing, and ever-growing. In the historical moment we occupy, the number of surviving eye-witnesses to the atrocities that were perpetuated is extremely limited, and so access to first-hand testimony, a crucial means of connecting to these human stories, is dwindling. It is therefore continually imperative that we make the right effort to listen to and faithfully record these accounts, for posterity, and for those who will not be able to meet someone who experienced the Holocaust.

The primary purpose of Holocaust Memorial Day is remembrance, and the inherent importance of this remembrance cannot and should not be diminished in answering how much ‘contemporary relevance’ the Holocaust is seen to have today. Nevertheless,  27 January is also often used as an opportunity to reflect on the factors implicated in creating the Holocaust, and their position in society today. The mechanics of power, of prejudice, and of persecution should not, I think, be pursued with a kind of ‘intellectual curiosity’ at the expense of honouring the memories of those who were killed, but can be valuably reflected on as continually insidious, and as shaping human realities.

We may be engaging in recollections of recollections, in memorial at a remove, but this does not mean we can afford to be ignorant of the reality of systematic denials of safety and equality in our own communities, and in the international community. The particular theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations is 'Don’t Stand By', and encourages those marking the day to productively think on the influence of bystander behaviour, both during the Holocaust and in their own lives.

We cannot exempt ourselves from the act of remembrance, or we risk forgetting, and we risk denial. We cannot, in 2016, exempt ourselves from the responsibility to understand and challenge the undermining of marginalised groups, and the appalling psychological cruelty and violence so many face based on factors of difference today. And we must not exempt ourselves from acts of compassion.