Holocaust Memorial Day

Friday 27 January 2023

Holocaust Memorial Day; the international day on 27 January to remember the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution of other groups and more recent genocides Why 27 January? Because this marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

It is also my assembly week at work, so I find myself researching the stories and events in more detail than usual. This year’s theme is ‘ordinary people‘ …

The ‘ordinary people’ theme addresses the uncomfortable truth that genocide is carried out by ordinary people. Ordinary people turn a blind eye to hatred and injustice, ordinary people believe propaganda and ordinary people choose to join dangerous regimes. However, most of my assembly features the heartbreaking ordinariness of the victims, whose only crime of to have an identity that another group of people choose to persecute. The first is Anne Frank…

Anne Frank, famous for writing a diary of her family’s time in hiding is an attic in the Netherlands, has offered the world a unique view of the Holocaust and its impact on the Jewish community through the eyes of a child. In my assembly, however, this is not what we focus on. We look at Anne as an ordinary girl; a girl exactly like us.

Look at that pink diary, with its little lock. It is just the sort of journal I’d have loved at that age, as would my children! Anne was turning 13, the start of the teenage years when we all feel that ‘no-one understands us’ , this diary, a cherished birthday present, was to be a friend, a confidante, a space for private and special thoughts. This was her first entry

I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before …”

Although the growing restrictions on her young life are soon evident and foreshadow the tragedy which is to unfold, Anne’s early entries are about: friendship issues, boys she likes and school work. And, for me, this insight into typical teenage life, a world full of innocence, hopes and dreams for the future, when I know what is to happen, because I’ve just listened to a survivor’s account of life in a concentration camp … just breaks me. Breaks me as a mum but, even more so, as a persons who too was once 13 with a lifetime of adventures and experiences ahead of her.

Secondly, we look at the life of Julius Hirsch, one of the three footballers honoured in the Holocaust Memorial outside Chelsea’s ground at Stamford Bridge.

Someone puts me onto football as a perfect source of interesting stories to help young people relate to the Holocaust. And there are many individuals I could have spoken about. Physical activity was an immediate target for the Nazis and from 1933, Jews were excluded from German sport and recreational facilities. In consequence, the Holocaust is said to have wiped out a generation of Jewish sporting talent. Julius Hirsch was one of them.

Julius, born in 1892, loved football and joined the Karlsruhe club at the age of 10. He was to go on to represent his country at the Olympic games, he was to go on to fight for Germany in WW1 and to be awarded the Iron Cross, he was to return to Karlsruhe as a football coach, he was, all recognise, a national hero, But, in our assembly we linger at the start. Because loving football and joining a club are what so many of us and our offspring will have done as ordinary children. Prom-dress daughter and Small Boy both joined a local football club, and we have a picture of my Eldest scoring a goal for the school team. It encapsulates the extent to which we are all so similar and makes the insanity of identity-based crimes seems incomprehensible and cruel.

Julius was also a great family man. He divorced his non-Jewish wife in 1939, to try and protect her and their ‘Mischling children from persecution. For this reason, when the very country he represented on both the football field and the battle field deported him to Auschwitz, we have this painful quote from his daughter Esther, as she left him at Karlsruhe train station,

It was a lovely day; to this day I don’t understand how the sun could have been shining. We didn’t believe that we would never see him again”

They were indeed never to see him again.

Just incredibly sad. My assembly research leaves me deeply moved and pondering why such senseless situations arise and continue to do so. We are all similar in so many ways and yet it is clearly all too easy to give space to fear, negativity and hatred of others, simply because of small differences.

I suppose the only answer is to turn our backs on indifference and apathy and find the courage to speak out. We are all ordinary people who can be extraordinary in our actions. We can all make decisions to challenge prejudice, stand up to hatred, to speak out against identity-based persecution. But, would we… do we?