Holocaust Memorial Day: A Universalising Message?
Emily-Rose Baker | 3 February 2020
◇ Modern History | European History | Jewish History
On Monday 27 January, thousands gathered across the globe to commemorate International Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, which also marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – the Nazi concentration and extermination camp where European Jews and other minorities were imprisoned and murdered en masse. In Sheffield it was no different, with residents coming together for a candle lit vigil in the Winter Gardens that was well-attended by important representatives of the city, such as the Lord Mayor, as well as religious leaders from local Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities.
Every year Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK is given an accompanying theme by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and this year was no exception, the 2020 theme being ‘Stand Together’. Underlying this phrase is a message of solidarity: solidarity with Jews in the face of the global rise in antisemitic hate crime, solidarity with survivors, and solidarity with those who perished in the Holocaust – which is still subject to widespread denial and revisionism. This solidarity also allies us with the victims and survivors of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, who are also commemorated on Holocaust Memorial Day.
Connecting this annual event with an overarching theme can help to direct the focus of Holocaust commemoration and make it more relevant to a contemporary audience, and to young people in particular. Symptomatic of our western liberal approach to memory making, however, these themes also have the potential to dilute or otherwise universalise the specific ‘lessons’ to be learnt from the attempted annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany over seventy-five years ago.
This concern was brought to my attention during Sheffield’s own vigil, which opened with several upbeat renditions of well-known pop songs by a primary school choir, including (to my surprise) Randy Newman’s Toy Story hit ‘You Got a Friend in Me’. Audience members clapped along and applauded the performance, which led into the evening’s scheduled readings and reflections.
It’s encouraging that so many Sheffield residents of all ages and backgrounds feel willing and able to participate in a Holocaust Memorial Day vigil, which is always welcome to all. It is also perhaps easy to understand the inclusion of songs that advocate for friendship, camaraderie and love within an event of this kind, especially for children. The problem with using a Disney-associated song about the love of two fictional characters for a commemorative Holocaust vigil is that it entirely obfuscates the identities of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
We are in danger of reducing Holocaust Memorial Day to an event defined by well-meaning but platitudinal phrases such as ‘never again’, which serve to depoliticise the antisemitic roots of the Holocaust. Memory is always political and is inextricably linked to power and identity: this means we cannot refer to the ‘people’ who died during the Holocaust, as this constitutes a generalised description of the victims of Nazi genocide who were persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs and ethnicities. As the numbers of those who witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust first-hand are sadly dwindling, it is more important than ever that official commemorations of the Shoah (the Jewish Holocaust) are firmly situated in their historical and political contexts.
Yet there is a degree to which the sometimes-universalising effect of Britain’s National Holocaust Memorial Day is a product of our nation’s identity-affirming motives for establishing this commemorative event in the first place. Established in 2001, Holocaust Memorial Day was designed to bring national recognition to the suffering of Jewish victims and other minorities of the Holocaust, and to critically reflect on how the past can inform our approach to religious, ethnic and racial prejudice and discrimination in the present. As Daniel Tilles and John Richardson argue, however, Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day is just as much about emphasising what Labour MP Andrew Dismore called the ‘positive values of Britain’ as it is about commemorating victims.
As such, the Holocaust has been deployed in national commemorative practice as a tool not only to advance Britain’s false superiority as liberators, but, as historians have argued, to mask the more uncomfortable aspects of Britain’s wartime past. According to Tilles and Richardson, this includes Britain’s ‘collaboration in deporting Jewish residents from the occupied Channel Islands to Nazi death camps’ as well as its little-acknowledged ‘reluctance to facilitate the escape of Jewish refugees fleeing occupied Europe’.
Moreover, the designation of a day dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust is an important opportunity to remember Holocaust victims. It should, however, be viewed as part of a rigorous and ongoing critical reflection regarding the treatment of Jews as well as a chance to educate upcoming generations of the atrocities of the Third Reich. In order to better express our solidarity with Jewish victims of persecution past and present, an acknowledgement of their identities must be at the forefront of British Holocaust commemoration, as should the current reality of antisemitism that increasingly rears its ugly head in the political sphere. Holocaust Memorial Day is not a marker of western sophistication; rather, it is a reminder of the continued threats of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia to minorities.
Emily-Rose Baker is a final year PhD researcher based in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her thesis examines postcommunist representations of Holocaust memory and dreams in central-eastern Europe, and is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH). You can find Emily on Twitter @emily_baker18.