Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, which is commemorated on the 27th January (the date upon which the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp) each year. It is important that we take time to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in other subsequent horrors which have followed more recently in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and Syria.
Neither should we forget the genocides inflicted on the Armenians and the Ukrainians. It is only right and proper that we honour the survivors and continue to challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today.
By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women and children had perished in ghettos, mass-shootings, in concentration camps and extermination camps. As Allied troops made progress across Nazi-occupied Europe, they began to uncover concentration and extermination camps. The camp of Majdanek in Poland was the first to be liberated, in summer 1944.
Nazi forces burnt the crematoria and the mass graves in attempts to hide the crimes that had been committed - the Operation Reinhardt camps of Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka were dismantled by the Nazis from 1943, and Auschwitz was evacuated in late 1944. The surviving prisoners, weak from starvation and ill-treatment, and poorly clothed against elements were forced to walk into the interior of Germany, away from the Allied armies, many thousands died on the enforced ‘death marches’.
Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27th January 1945, where they found several thousand emaciated survivors, and the smouldering remains of the gas chambers and crematoria (the Nazi’s had attempted to destroy evidence of their crimes against humanity). In the following months, the Soviets liberated Stutthof, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck.
In the west, US troops liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, followed by Flossenburg, Dachau and Mauthausen. British Troops liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15th April 1945. It is estimated there were over 60,000 prisoners in Belsen by April 1945. Approximately 35,000 prisoners died of typhus, malnutrition and starvation in the first few months of 1945.
Tony Blair (the then UK prime minister) once asked Jewish leaders do we need Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain? Jonathan Sacks (formers Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for 22 years, until 2013) noted that this was the question as Tony Blair in 1999, when it had been proposed that the UK have a Holocaust Memorial Day, and Blair wanted the opinion of British Jewish leaders. They explained that they did not need it as Jews.
When it comes to remembrance Jewish people already had Yom ha-Shoa, their own memorial day, which falls soon after Passover in the Jewish calendar. Every Jew literally (or figuratively) lost family in the Holocaust. For Jews, Yom ha-Shoa is a grief observed. The Jewish leaders said that the Holocaust was not just a crime against Jews and other victims – Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, the handicapped and Jehovah’s Witnesses among them; it was an assault on all of humanity. As one of the survivors said earlier today perhaps we need an eleventh commandment – Don’t be bystander!