By Lianne Kolirin
When the British government introduced Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001, it cannot have factored in how a pandemic might one day move the commemoration online.
Yet while large memorial and educational gatherings can obviously not proceed next week while the nation remains under lockdown, the occasion is more poignant and relevant than ever.
Initially organised through the Home Office, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) was registered as a charity in 2005. The memorial day is marked annually on 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp in 1945.
The annual opportunity to remember “a world scarred by genocide” pays tribute to the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and also the millions of others killed under Nazi persecution and in subsequent genocides such as in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
One particular focus this year will be the persecution of Uyghur Muslims. China is believed to have detained more than a million Uyghur people in prison camps across Xinjiang since 2017, but the government has denied wrongdoing, describing the camps as “vocational training centres”.
Among the many speaking out, Britain’s Jewish community has been prominent in its support, dedicating front pages in the Jewish press to the cause and pushing for government action.
The subject will be part of an online panel debate, entitled Past and Present Genocides, organised by the Holocaust Education Trust to mark the anniversary.
Holocaust survivor Ruth Barnett will share her experiences, alongside Amil Khan, director of Remembering Srebrenica, and Rahima Mahmut, director of the World Uighur Congress.
There are lessons to be highlighted for other parts of the world too. This year’s memorial day, which has the theme “Be the light in the darkness”, comes three weeks after rioters stormed the US Capitol on 6 January in protest at the election result.
The assault on democracy, which left five dead, sent shock waves around the world. One of the most striking images was that of a rioter wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words Camp Auschwitz. Others, meanwhile, proudly displayed allegiance to QAnon, a far-right movement characterised by wild conspiracy theories and intolerance.
The day after the ransacking of the Capitol, the Holocaust Education Trust issued a stark message on its website.
It read: “These shameful events did not happen in a vacuum. They were a culmination of division, mass disinformation, conspiracy theories and the rhetoric of hate that had been able to flourish online and in society. They are also a painful reflection on those who through their words or actions fuelled the situation, or those who through their silence or inaction have stood by and allowed this to happen.
“At the Holocaust Educational Trust we work to ensure that everyone, from every background, knows what can happen when hatred is allowed to go unchecked. Words matter. It is our shared duty to defend democracy and the values and institutions that underpin it. So today, once again we promise to speak out wherever hatred rears its head; to never turn a blind eye when division is sown; to always protect and respect our shared humanity. It is incumbent on all of us to play our part.”
This year’s national ceremony will be streamed from 7pm to 8pm on Wednesday 27 January. Organisers hope people nationwide will display a lit candle in their windows to “remember those who were murdered for who they were” and “stand against prejudice and hatred today”.
Rabbi Natan Levy, head of operations for Faiths Forum for London, said the past year had lent extra weight to the event.
“It’s more relevant than ever before,” he said. “Social distancing has led to other types of distancing which means people can get very isolated and lost. Sometimes that can lead to misunderstanding and even hatred for the other which is what we’re really concerned about.
“So we at the Faiths Forum are trying to find other ways of creating tolerance even though people are very distanced. Our challenge is to find those places of light in such dark times.”
Mustafa Field, director of the forum, said his organisation had enabled different faith groups to come together — virtually and otherwise — to work together for the greater good.
He told the Religion Media Centre: “We learn from the Holocaust that we need to be upstanders and not bystanders.”
While the pandemic had in some instances fuelled hatred and intolerance, there had also been much to feel positive about, he said. “The kindness that people have shown in these difficult times has been quite an inspiration,” added Mr Field, who points towards the many examples of social action by various faith groups in the capital and beyond — from providing food to those in need to opening up places of worship as vaccination centres.
In the week after Holocaust Memorial Day, Faith Forums London, with other community organisations, will meet Nadhim Zahawi, minister for the Covid-19 vaccine deployment, to discuss how religious communities can encourage and promote uptake of the vaccine.
“The many acts of kindness have provided a very powerful light at the end of this ever-lengthening tunnel,” Mr Field said.
“We at Faith Forums London bring communities together to talk about how we can continue to bring this light by tackling misinformation with clarity and facts. There was a lot of misinformation during the Holocaust and we are trying to create a movement of challenge ignorance and misinformation.”