On Holocaust Memorial Day 2022 I gave this speech to remember all those who were killed during the Holocaust and to reaffirm the need to learn from the atrocities of the past so that we may never repeat them.
I have been to many Holocaust Memorials across Germany and Eastern Europe throughout my life. Bergen-Belsen close to my home town of Hannover, Dachau, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the remaining bit of road from the Warsaw ghetto and most hauntingly of all the Ponary massacre memorial outside Vilnius.
Whenever I am directly confronted with the stories of unspeakable atrocities committed by the German state during the 1930s and 40s on the Jewish people, I feel a crushing sense of horror and shame. I was born in 1960; it was not my generation who was directly responsible for the terror. However, my feeling of collective responsibility for what happened is acute and with it that we should never forget and work towards a world in which such awful suffering will never be repeated.
My grandmother was half Jewish. Her first husband was Jewish. My uncle was in Dachau in 1936 but got out with the help of Scandinavian friends. All my mother’s half brothers and sisters had to leave Germany and except one, never returned. My grandmother’s anguish about her children and their families hung over my mother, who was the youngest, every day of her childhood.
My grandmother’s second husband, my grandfather, was not Jewish. He was a judge and was appointed to the Appeal Court in Leipzig in 1927. In 1933, only months after he came to power, Hitler installed the Volksgericht, or peoples court, which was a political court to deal with anybody who was seen as an enemy of the state and which signalled the end of the rule of law. My grandfather resigned.
My grandfather died before I was born but I know through my mother that he never forgave himself for not becoming politically active to stop the rise of Hitler.
There are volumes and volumes of history books analysing the rise of the Nazis.
The political instability after the First World War, the loss of national pride and being a Great Nation. The Russian revolution leading to the fear of communism which drove many Germans into the arms of the fascists.
It was the extremes of left and right which destroyed the moderate political centre. With it came illiberal and intolerant attitudes towards anybody who could be painted as the enemy. From there it was only a small step to look at people from a different race or culture as not worthy of human compassion and protection. The Nazis deliberately stoked irrational fear to win elections. Once Germans elected in a democratic vote a barbaric leader, they couldn’t free themselves from the monster they had helped to create. Only a world war did.
“Wehred den Anfängen” - resist the beginnings - is what I learned from my German history lessons. The Holocaust Memorial Trust has published the ten stages to Genocide so that people and communities recognize the warning signs. Discrimination, dehumanisation and polarisation are among those warning signs and sadly they are part of our political reality today, right under our own eyes.
The fight against intolerance, exclusion and inhumanity is ongoing. I owe it to the memory of the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust at the hands the country I was born in, that I convert the shame that I will always feel into political activism. I will stand up and speak out that we need to keep our eyes wide open to where barbarism begins.