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25.01.21

Be the Light in the Dark

I am very proud to have called Lilian my boss, but most of all, a dear friend.

It seems absolutely appropriate to reprise the metaphor of the light in the darkness when thinking about Lilian. During the last year, Lilian embodied this me for me, in ways that are more palpable than abstract. For example, she did so, by giving me an opportunity that truly changed my career at a time when I was struggling with the precarious reality of academia today. In doing so, Lilian gave me the stability that I needed to look after the centre and deliver her vision. Like all gestures of pure altruism, I will never be sure if she knew how much she did for me.

And so, while I make the success of the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association an absolute priority, on Holocaust Memorial Day, it seems more important than ever to reflect on what it means to be the metaphorical light in a kind of darkness which is often all too real, and on the purpose of Holocaust education today.

Our individual actions can go very far, as Lilian taught us by working tirelessly for the HSFA and by transforming it, especially in the past couple of years. Auschwitz-survivor Elie Wiesel once said: “Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness.”  This was absolutely imperative for Wiesel, as somebody who had first-hand experience of what hatred and discrimination can do. And it was imperative for a group of remarkable individuals, all from Leeds and West Yorkshire, who came together – self-organised – in the 1990s to create a safe space, where they could discuss what happened to them and their loved ones during the Holocaust. The term ‘friendship’ that is at the heart of the organisation’s name acquires a new dimension when read against the metaphor of the light in the dark. Bringing light was, very plainly, what those survivors were doing for one another.

The necessity to raise awareness about the Holocaust and its root causes culminated in the opening of an Exhibition and Learning Centre on the campus of the University of Huddersfield, an incredible project which tells the history of the Holocaust from their perspectives – from the perspectives of survivors and refugees who made their lives in the North of England. In this respect, the exhibition is unique, in the way in which it uses local stories to tell a global one. And I urge you to come and see it, if you haven’t already, when it is safe to do so.

But Wiesel’s message – “Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness” – just like the message of the community of Holocaust survivors in Leeds also represented a call for everyone to make it their responsibility to stand up against to the injustices that fed the chain of events at the grounds of the rise of Nazism and Holocaust. This is why our work in collecting, preserving and exhibiting the material and immaterial memories of Holocaust survivors is so incredibly important. If Holocaust education is seen as something that is stuck in the past, or – as I hear too often – only about the past, if we fail to highlight its transgenerational and global impact, then we will begin to see the Holocaust itself as something from another world and whose memory is no longer relevant to today’s world.

This responsibility is brought in sharp focus by the fact that in the post-Holocaust world that we inhabit, the cruel oppression of people based on religion and ethnicity – or often on a profound confusion between the two – but also disability and sexuality, has occurred in very different settings: in Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur, Myanmar, and Rwanda. And let’s not forget, the chilling accounts of what is happening to the Uighur Muslim minority in China. This is a devastating picture, supported heavily by leaked documents, survivor testimonies and satellite images, while we largely continue to ignore. To too many, the idea of a new genocide in the present seems ‘impossible’, with comparisons between past and present minimized or dismissed – and, in the worst cases, even calling into question whether the Holocaust truly happened.

I believe it is precisely historical forgetfulness the reason why, over the past decade, we have witnessed an increasing legitimization of words, images, material cultures that should be condemned as fascist, and as such should be relegated from our societies. Over the past decade, we have forgotten that when we look in the eyes of extremism, extremism might just return the gaze.

Instead, we can often encounter extremism in today’s mediatic discourse, where its manifestations become infectious, along with the ideologies that underpin them. For a recent example, we only need to look at what happened in Washington DC just a few days ago, when a group of far-right insurrectionists stormed in the Capitol building. In the aftermaths of the riot, a multitude of voices stressed that it had been directly incited by a culture disinformation and fake news. As if this wasn’t enough to legitimize comparisons with the past, Holocaust references – such as the infamous ‘arbeit macht frei’, and ‘Camp Auschwitz’ appeared on the garments of some of those who took part in the riot. ‘We love you’, ‘you’re all very special’ was what they got back from their leader.

As this recent news was being reported, many journalists have pointed out that a 1923-style putsch with Holocaust references might have been unthinkable only a few years ago. But the thing with Fascism is that it is more than a dangerous ideology. It is the outcome of a process of ‘becoming’ – with each step leading to the next, and the legitimization of something ‘unfathomable’ becoming a turning point, and, if unchallenged, a point of no return. The Romani and Sinti’s name for the Holocaust, I believe, functions successfully as a description of the genocide, as well as of the processes that culminated into it: the ‘devouring’ that steadily swallowed 11 million people – 6 million of whom were Jews – in Europe.

As a professional within the field of Holocaust education, I have seen too many learners approaching our subject matter with the view of Fascism as a status quo, something that happened in a moment in time remote from ours and with no impact on our local communities, and as the result of the actions of a small group of people – the dark that suddenly appeared in a previous context of light.

The result of this idea is a series of misconceptions and inaccuracies, such as the idea that Nazi ideologies were only a German problem, that persecution started with the camps and ended with their liberation, or the notion of British exceptionalism pitted against the evil on the continent, and even the fact that stereotypes on the Jews, as well as on other persecuted groups, are still able to exist as loaded tropes.

And thus, while I think that the scope of Holocaust education was always to stimulate us to become ‘witness’ to the witnesses of Nazi persecution, over the past few years, I have been interrogating myself over the principles that can ensure that this happens effectively in the current decade. For me, and for my team at the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association, the five most important ones are:

  • Historical accuracy. We can tell our visitors and learners that it is essential to study the history of the Holocaust, so that it does not happen again, reprising a trope that is at the heart of historical education. Or we can tell them exactly what happened, showing the cause-effect relationship between events. The importance of research is why we are based on a University campus, and it is an essential part of the Holocaust and Genocide Research Partnership, of which we are a founding member alongside the Wiener Holocaust Library, Royal Holloway University and the University of Huddersfield.
  • To highlight the pluralism of experiences of Nazi persecution in order to truly put individuals back at the heart of historical education. And to do so, without prejudices that would inevitably end up reinforcing the same dehumanizing categories through which different victims were targeted. I feel this is especially important in our public programming, where too many times I happen to receive the comment that ‘This is not our Holocaust’. In this respect, our younger audiences can often teach us why it is important to listen, and the impact that an inclusive environment can have in their present lives.
  • An emphasis on localism – which I see as another implication of inclusivity. A global history told through local stories. I believe this essential to show that the Holocaust had truly global impacts, with implications for local communities everywhere.
  • Yet another implication of inclusivity. To be open minded about the methodologies, aims, and materials of different fields, from history to literature, from religion to the arts, so Holocaust narratives don’t feel ‘out of place’ anywhere and that nobody feels ‘unallowed’ to contribute to the discussion. As an art historian, I want to stress particularly the power of the arts to stimulate empathy and enable individual responses to the narratives of the Holocaust.
  • And lastly, self-scrutiny. Is it possible to direct the magnifying glass back onto ourselves? What do the experiences of survivors and refugees tell us about our responses to what happened and to what is happening to them? This is why at the HSFA we will continue to gather survivor testimonies and to expand our archive of oral histories.

2020 has been a time to reflect on the very delicate balance between the individual and the collective, the local and the global, the role of institutions in a situation of crisis, and the profound impact of the variable of our backgrounds on our circumstances. In this respect, 2020 has reframed questions that are also essential to Holocaust education. It has shown us that ideas can be as infectious as a virus, but also that this principle can equally apply to gestures of kindness and solidarity. In this respect, Holocaust education and survivor testimonies are especially important in showing that the responsibility to turn darkness into bright light lies with no one other than ourselves.

You can watch the stream of the event here