Why Holocaust Memorial Day is equally important and problematic

Ben Fuller | 29 January 2018

Modern History | Global History | Jewish History | Public History

Holocaust memorial, Budapest [via WikiCommons].

I struggle with memorial days. I can’t help thinking that they make little impact on the notion of memorialism, and before you know it we’ve all moved on without giving a second thought to the event which we are supposed to be remembering.

On Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May wrote in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s book of remembrance “our commitment to remember the Holocaust is about more than words — it is about action. It is about raising awareness, spreading understanding, ensuring the memory of the Holocaust lives on, and standing up to prejudice and hatred wherever it is found today.” The same day she stood with President Donald Trump, who was in the process of attempting to block, wholesale, the entrance to the US for citizens of selected ‘Muslim countries’. Such stark and obvious moments of hypocrisy cause me to wonder what the point of Holocaust Memorial Day is?

Of course, primary among the objectives of Holocaust Memorial Day is to bring the events of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides into the public’s consciousness. Knowing about and understanding an event which shook the foundations of Western Civilisation and, in part, shaped the world we live in today should be regarded as more than enough of a task. But remembrance means more than this. Remembrance entails response, action, and reaction to what has happened.

The ‘never again’ mantra is trotted out amid a world in which genocide has been present in every decade since 1945 and atrocities are part of the daily news cycle. It seems that remembering for one day in the year is not enough to change patterns of human behaviour. When memorialising is a passive process, based on unimaginable statistics and empty phrases it can do little more than generate a momentary response. For people to engage with the memory and implications of the Holocaust and wider genocides, I’d argue that we must go a little deeper than this.

The British government stated clearly that Holocaust Memorial Day was about “articulating a particular vision of Britishness”.[1] What that vision of Britishness is remains unclear. Memory Scholars Jann Assmann and John Czaplieka suggest that the values which are highlighted from memory “tells us much about the constitution and tendencies of a society.” [2] So, beyond the memory of the Holocaust, Holocaust Memorial Day can be seen as an ideological tool which promotes a contemporary narrative.

In the case of the UK this narrative is limited to Britain as righteous liberators of camps, and fighters against Nazi tyranny. Holocaust Memorial Day is not the time to discuss the refusal to accept more than a few thousand Jewish refugee children before the war, restrict Jewish immigration to British Mandated Palestine, or fail to act on the intelligence from Eastern Europe of the unfolding atrocities taking place. What is admitted into and omitted from our national image of Holocaust memory seems to create a somewhat skewed picture.

Before its inception in 2001, Historian Dan Stone registered his concern predicting that it would be a ‘a day of fatuous ceremonies when the great and the good will congratulate themselves for not being Nazis’ while also reliev[ing] the community of the burden of memory.’ [3] The example above does little to refute such a fear and, in some ways, renders the meaning and value of such a day as lost. But despite the grandiose, yet simultaneously half-hearted, statements from statemen and women I would argue it is important that we devote time to remembering this cataclysmic event, and the subsequent genocides perpetrated in the 20th and 21st centuries. The challenge is making the memory meaningful.

Meaning can be found through personal engagement with the past, addressing complexities and moving away from simplistic and universalised statements. This can ignite genuine thought and consideration of the events, and their implications for us. If Holocaust Memorial Day is about more than remembering as knowing what happened, then it must be challenging to us in a way which causes us to think, and react through behaviour rather than ceremony. There is a place for ceremony in so-far-as it marks the occasion, but memorialisation of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides should be an active process.

‘Never again’ is often a trite statement which, despite good intention, fails to achieve the active change it demands. Moreover, it won’t stop failing to make an impact while we keep thoughtlessly saying it. What Holocaust Memorial Day should be about is asking why it has failed, challenging ourselves with the stories of past genocide, and starting a process of thought and action that doesn’t stop at midnight on January 27th.

Ben Fuller was a 2004 graduate of Sheffield University, with BA in Politics and Sociology. He now teaches History at Tapton School in Sheffield, and is also currently completing his MA in Holocaust Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. He works freelance with The Holocaust Educational Trust and has written educational materials for the Winston Churchill Archive on the Holocaust and WW2 History.

This blog is part of a series of posts for National Holocaust Memorial Day – they will appear here as they are posted.

[1] Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Marcel Stoetzler.Holocaust Memory in the 21st Century: between national reshaping and globalisation. European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 18:01, pp69-78. 2011.

[2] Jann Assmann and John Czaplieka. New German Critique, No. 65, Cultural History/Cultural Studies, pp. 125-133. Duke University Press. 1995.

[3] Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Marcel Stoetzler. Holocaust Memory in the 21st Century: between national reshaping and globalisation. European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 18:01, pp69-78. 2011.