Sunday, 27 January 2013

Notes from a Cemetery

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, I thought I would post an assembly talk that I gave in school last year. 

Sunday 27th January is Holocaust Memorial Day, dedicated to the remembrance of victims of the Holocaust, the systematic, state sponsored murder of millions of people by the regime of Nazi Germany during World War Two.

The victims were predominantly Jews, but other also other groups, including gypsies, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists, and homosexuals. What these groups had in common was that they all had no place in place in the world the Nazis wanted to build.
They were all different.

In April 2011, two of my students were given the opportunity to participate in the lessons from Auschwitz project, which included a day in Poland, to visit Auschwitz, the largest German concentration camp of World War Two, and I was privileged to be able to accompany them as a teacher. 

During our visit, we saw many things you might be familiar with from school lessons or from films – the barbed wire fences, the camp accommodation, the gas chambers, the personal possessions of the many people who died at the camp. 

But everybody takes something different from their visit to Auschwitz. And I’d like to talk to you about something we saw before we went to the camp, in the small Polish town of Oświęcim, which gave its name, in a Germanised form, to Auschwitz. It was something that almost every small town in the world has. Something many of you will walk past on your way to school. It was a cemetery. 

At first sight quite an ordinary cemetery. But the graves had Hebrew writing, and were decorated with Menorah, not the cross. 

The people buried there are not victims of the Holocaust, they died before the War. Something I hadn’t known until our visit is that before the War, Oświęcim had a thriving Jewish community of 8,000 people, over half the population of the town, and this was the Jewish Cemetery.

And in a way, the people buried there were the lucky ones. They were free to live, marry, have children. They grew old, they died, were buried and were mourned. The cemetery is a place of the dead, not a place of death. 

But although the people buried there were not murdered by the Nazis, the cemetery is still in its own way a witness to the Holocaust, to how far the Nazis went in their aim of destroying the Jewish people. For even dead Jews had no place in the world the Nazis, and during the war they demolished they graveyard, removed the headstones, and turned it into a storage depot. The cemetery was restored after the war, but nobody knew any longer which grave was which, and headstones and graves are now forever jumbled up. 

Today the graves are visited and looked after, not by the families of those buried there, but by travellers and volunteers from all over the world. The reason.....  In Europe six million of Europe’s nine million population of Jews population died during the holocaust – 2 in every 3 Jews. Before the war there were three million Polish Jews. Today, that figure is about three thousand. The rest were murdered or fled to other countries, never to return. And in Oświęcim, once home to a community of eight thousand, not a single Jew now remains. 

In History, we learn about crimes such as the Holocaust, there are three groups whose role we need to understand. The first is the perpetrators - those commit crimes. The second is their victims. But there is a third group, in a way more important than either of these, and this group we call the Bystanders – those who saw what was happening, but who did not speak out. We don’t usually think of history as being shaped by silence, but, as one of my favourite philosophers once wrote:

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ 

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2013 is communities. Today, please take a moment to remember those communities which were destroyed during the Holocaust, under Nazi Persecution and the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

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