Holocaust Memorial Day falls again on January 27. It is the ninth consecutive year that this (in many ways uniquely) evil event is being officially commemorated in Britain and the EU. Predictably there are voices — including some Jewish — who say, haven’t we heard enough about the Holocaust? What more is there to learn?
I take the opposite view — that collectively the world has not studied it nearly enough, and has not properly learned its lessons. If it had, anti-Semitism wouldn’t once again be rife in so many countries, including European ones. And if it had, I don’t think President Assad of Syria could have used chemical weapons to kill 1,429 civilians, including hundreds of children, in a suburb of his own capital last August, without punitive action being taken by the world in response.
But of course Assad’s actions can’t compare in scale and systematic dehumanisation with the genocide carried out by the Nazis and their helpers from every country in Europe (including British subjects in Guernsey and Jersey).
For decades the subject was all but ignored by the film and publishing industries — Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi were among those who struggled to find publishers. Eventually, books were published, films were made, and — decades late — Holocaust museums opened and memorials erected. And because there are still so many amazing stories to be told there are still more remarkable films being made. In Darkness, released in 2012, about the only group of Jews to survive the war alive in the sewers of Nazi-occupied Europe, was to my mind even more impressive than Schindler’s List or The Pianist.
Next year’s Cannes Film Festival will see the release of The Zookeeper’s Wife, the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who saved 300 Jewish adults and children from the Nazis by hiding them in animal cages at Warsaw Zoo.
And there is so much more we don’t know. How many, for example, know of Chelmno, the first extermination camp set up on European soil, in 1941, which served as a model for later camps? The Nazis killed at least 200,000 Jews there, as they experimented with the most efficient ways to kill en masse. Only three Jews survived Chelmno. Few of the murderers were ever punished.
How many know of Belzec, where Ukrainian SS units, under the command of Germans, murdered 500,000 Jews and only two survived? The lack of survivors is a prime reason why this camp is so little-known, despite the enormous number of victims. But we know exactly what went on there because the Nazis — proud of how many people they were exterminating — kept meticulous records.
How many realise that when Europeans wanted to save their fellow citizens, they often could have done so? For example, in Lithuania, where 95 per cent of the country’s Jews were killed — often by Lithuanians working with the Nazis — Jan Zwartendijk, the Dutch representative for Philips’ plants in Lithuania, saved more than 1,200 Jews. He refused to leave when he was recalled, and instead (having persuaded the Dutch government-in-exile to appoint him consul in Kaunas) frantically began issuing exit permits to Jews for the Dutch West Indies. An orphanage and school in Israel are named after Zwartendijk, but right up to his death in 1976 few were interested in him in his native Holland, and Lithuania only begrudgingly acknowledged his deeds in September 2012.
Or who knows that, while French police were helping the Nazis round up Jews in the rest of France, in the Huguenot village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon the entire population (under the guidance of the local priest) shielded hundreds of Jews from surrounding villages, hiding them in their homes? President Jacques Chirac only officially recognised the heroism of the town in 2004, and it was not until last summer that a museum commemorating its wartime courage finally opened.