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Remember — and pursue peace

26 January 2024

Holocaust Memorial Day presents Richard H. Spencer with challenging questions this year


PARADOXICALLY, given the macabre subject of my work, I enjoyed working as a regional support worker with a national Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) organisation. Founded to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, HMD addresses the dispiriting issue of genocide as its primary concern, recalling the past to inform the present.

Over the years, the focus of the day has been broadened to remind us that genocide did not stop when the gates of that notorious camp were finally flung open. There have been other terrible instances: Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, the Roma community, to list but four. HMD seeks not only to remember, but to prevent the recurrence of, such crimes against humanity, and it does so through fostering awareness of the roots of genocide and the insidious processes that enable it. It is an international movement.

I felt privileged to be part of this mission, and proud of my work. In my outreach, I was received with universal welcome by schools, volunteer groups, civic associations, faith communities, and individuals, all eager to share in the task. The contributions made by these people, in time and effort, were generous and heartfelt. United by the mantra “Never forget, never again,” we sowed seeds that we hoped would bear fruit for a more humane future for the world.

IN 2024, however, I feel for my successors in such projects. The reason for this is the ongoing catastrophe in Gaza.

The background is well-known. Responding to a horrific series of attacks by Hamas in October, Gaza’s neighbour, Israel, unleashed a military campaign, with devastating consequences.

Netanyahu’s government, perhaps haunted by the spectre of “Never forget, never again” (Holocaust remembrance can be a two-edged sword), has met fire with fire, and rendered vast tracts of Gaza uninhabitable — and untenable. Its precarious infrastructure has been pounded to rubble, thousands of people have been reduced to refugees, and families have been shattered and maimed in the onslaught.

In theory, such actions may be justified as necessary retaliation, the prerogative of any nation-state. But the actual consequences are redolent of episodes from history that most of us had thought were consigned for ever to, well, . . . history. At the very least, the displacement of Gazans from their homes has meant a depopulation comparable with the ethnic cleansing of Serbia and Bosnia in the last century’s Balkan wars. This is unsurprising; for how can anyone live in a place where the means to live have been obliterated?

Some believe that the situation is altogether much darker. Whether they were intentional or not, the consequences of Israel’s actions have been condemned as inhumane, indiscriminate, and indefensible.

An accusation of genocide has been made at the International Court of Justice by South Africa (News, 19 January). Émile Zola’s words, “J’accuse,” quoted by the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, at Eichmann’s trial in the 1960s, now point to Israel itself: a reality that, before Gaza, might have been unimaginable.

The legal wranglings will continue for a long time, eventually receding, perhaps. But that gravest of accusations now levelled at the Israeli government will hang heavily for generations to come — a grim irony, if you accept that it was a catastrophic act of genocide which actually precipitated the foundation of Israel in 1948. Those once fleeing persecution must now reckon with the shameful moniker of being “perpetrator”.

There might a reckoning, too, for many of us who are engaged in Holocaust remembrance today; for, while there is no connection between Israel’s actions and the act of remembering the Holocaust, we may find ourselves, none the less, cast as co-defendants with the Israeli government in a binary outlook that sees us as “birds of a feather”.

This would be unfair, but it is a real possibility: I would be unsurprised if many of those who once received ambassadors of HMD with enthusiasm now harboured scepticism or weariness. Looking from Auschwitz to Gaza, they might ask: “What is the point of all this? The whole world is deaf, blind.”

DOES such questioning sound a death knell for Holocaust remembrance today? I hope not.

During my work for Memorial Day, I participated in events involving students, poets, artists, musicians, faith groups, and community groups around Wales — a rich tapestry of encounters.

Always, my mind was drawn to remember the dead of Auschwitz, of course. But I remembered, too, the victims of more recent evils. That remembering renewed my determination to do all that I could to deprive such evil of its currency.

This year, HMD 2024, I will do the same. My tragic roll call of the dead will be longer, and will include Israelis, Gazans, and others, struck down by humanity’s inhumanities. And I will hope that my thoughts may coalesce somehow, with a collective, global commitment to pursuing peace.

In this lies the undeniable power of Holocaust remembrance: to unify disparate beings in good purposes. I was privileged to work for its observance. I will do so proudly again this year.

The Revd Richard H. Spencer is a supply teacher and was formerly a parish priest in the Church in Wales, Lecturer in New Testament Studies at Cardiff University, and Wales Support Worker for the Holcaust Memorial Day Trust.
Holocaust Memorial Day is observed tomorrow.

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