Holocaust Remembrance Day: saying ‘never again’ isn’t good enough

Many of the city’s historic buildings line the perimeter while tall trees possessed by countless ravens stand along the pathways within the secluded park.

Famous monuments lie in the park’s embrace, surrounded by more impressive flora and neatly trimmed glass.

There is so much violent history remembered in this tranquil place that you’d hardly believe the stories of memorials to be true – they seem to come from another world entirely.

As you walk towards the end of the silent square, you finally see it: the Eagle memorial.

Erected in 2014, the memorial is a reminder of all the victims who suffered and perished in the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944.

Plaques fill the low stone walls while a lonely few words of Hebrew protrude out in the one corner. If you weren’t looking for long enough, you’d have missed it.

Then, just a few meters onwards, a rudimentary fence of barbed wire snakes its way along the narrow street. Old broken shoes, dead flowers, burnt candles and rusted suitcases lie silently along its base.

On one of the pieces of paper dangling on the wire is a passage reading, “You can’t rewrite history – We know the truth”.

It is 27 January 2020, and the 75th annual commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau is taking place in Krakow, Poland.

A marquee is packed with hundreds of people from all over the world.

Dignitaries, politicians, corporate and spiritual leaders, students and others eye the shadow of the Polish president’s figure as he ascends the podium.

Anticipation fills the air.

Minutes later, countless murmurs and gasps emanate from the crowd as a cloud of anger fills the tent.

The president happily thanks everyone for their attention and hurries off the stage as if he knew the gravity of the mistake he’d just made.

The shocked voices are silenced by the master of ceremonies, but the thought remained alive in the stunned crowd: “How could he possibly have the gall to say that? How could he not take responsibility for what those people did to us?”

If a president, standing before dozens of Holocaust survivors and their families, can proclaim the greatness of the Polish nation during the fateful war and ignore the atrocities committed by hundreds of Poles towards their Jewish neighbours, what hope is there for the preservation of the Holocaust’s true memory?

Both of these different personal experiences – in different countries – highlight the same issue.

The Polish president’s speech was a prime example of how the modern world refuses to acknowledge the extent of its role in the Third Reich’s solution to the “Jewish Problem”. 

Hungary’s Eagle memorial paints a picture of an innocent and victimised Hungarian people who suffered unspeakable terror under the Nazis while the voices of thousands of Jews who were butchered in the streets by fellow Hungarians remain silent – but for a lonely plaque in Hebrew which barely any Hungarians will understand.

The Eagle monument is an effort to erase history without any responsibility or admittance of guilt.

Organised by ordinary citizens and organisations, the barbed wire fence is a counter monument opposing the purposeful distortion of the Hungarian government’s role before, during and after the Holocaust.

Few may realise it but far more sinister forces are at work within the many government halls and communities around Europe: a silent holocaust.

I don’t use the term lightly but there isn’t another more apt way to describe the purposeful effort to purge the true memory of the Jews from the history of European states and their respective societies.

This is what the Nazis notoriously envisioned and attempted to accomplish.

The perversion of history and distortion of the perpetrators’ identities has been carried out unhindered for decades. Ultimately, the memory of the Holocaust is still being tarnished and often erased from official records.

This ugly trend continues unabated for one simple reason: saying “Never Again” doesn’t actually do anything.

We cry the words from the bottom of our hearts and celebrate our survivors as the grandfathers and grandmothers of our proud Jewish nation but what does this achieve?

What responsibility are we undertaking to teach others about what happened in this darkest period in human history? 

Communities across the globe aren’t holding governments to account. Societies remaining silent and purposefully ignorant are choosing not to educate around the horrors of the past.

We aren’t actively supporting those who oppose the rampant obfuscation of history, and therefore are failing to preserve the memory of those who were murdered. 

South Africans are not strangers to suffering.

Our nation has come from the ashes of a regime that treated human lives as nothing but numbers.

However, ours is a society that unashamedly engages with its past at all levels, actively teaching the world about the horrors of the Apartheid era.

As Jewish South Africans, our responsibility to teach others about the horrors of the Holocaust and other genocides such as Rwanda’s is crucial.

We are living proof of the unparalleled horror that people are capable of when left unchallenged. We carry within ourselves the flame that the Nazis fought so hard to extinguish and that our survivors fought harder to brighten.

The way forward to a caring, knowledgeable and tolerant society is through education, and hence the study of genocides and the Holocaust should be mandatory in all our schools. 

The Holocaust is arguably one of the most important examples of how unparalleled death and destruction should be remembered. This is because that while it’s imperative to know the destructive power within all Mankind, it’s more important to know and deeply understand how hope can never be destroyed.

This year we will do more than cry on Yom HaShoah or walk through Auschwitz-Birkenau’s harrowing barracks and crematoria.

We will undertake the task of teaching others about what truly happened.

We will correct those who seek to obfuscate and pervert history. We will be responsible for creating a tolerant and caring society. 

Because saying “Never Again” just isn’t good enough.

– Ariel Goldberg is the National Chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS)

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