Every year on January 27, people across the world join in solidarity to mark Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD), on the anniversary of the day Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp, was liberated in 1945.
This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day – like so much else in our lives right now – will be different, but no less important. And the theme of this year’s HMD observations – ‘be light in the darkness’ – has never been more relevant.
“It encourages everyone to reflect on the depths humanity can sink to, but also the ways individuals and communities resisted that darkness to ‘be the light’ before, during and after genocide,” the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust noted, explaining this year’s theme.
“Be the light in the darkness is an affirmation and a call to action for everyone marking HMD. This theme asks us to consider different kinds of ‘darkness’, for example, identity-based persecution, misinformation, denial of justice; and different ways of ‘being the light’, for example, resistance, acts of solidarity, rescue and illuminating mistruths.”
Unite and its members have long observed Holocaust Memorial Day, but Unite also believes that the day must motivate us to tackle racism and xenophobia all year round.
In 2019, Unite founded its Unity Over Division campaign, which is aimed at equipping officers and activists with counter-arguments to challenge far-right, racist and xenophobic narratives that have gained renewed traction across the world in recent years. It was these very same narratives that enabled the Nazi regime to rise to prominence.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner explained why the union’s Unity Over Division work has been so vital.
“We have a duty as a trade union to remember, to learn the lessons of our history to both stand and act against the evils of racism and discrimination at every level,” he said.
“That’s why I’m so proud to lead Unite’s ‘Unity over Division’ strategy, developing the awareness, skills and confidence amongst our activists to both challenge hate wherever it raises its head and take our message of unity, solidarity, hope and opportunity into our communities and workplaces. Through our actions we can demonstrate in a very practical way, that there is always light in the darkness.”
This year, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has encouraged participation in the day by asking people to light a candle and safely place it by a window at 8pm. Participants are asked to take a picture of their candle and share it on social media using the #HolocaustMemorialDay and #LightTheDarkness.
Turner urged Unite members to take part in whatever way they can.
“Holocaust Memorial Day this year may feel very different, but whether meeting online or standing together collectively, it’s as vital as ever that as we remember the horrors of the past we reassert our commitment to defeat those whose actions and voices that still today advance the vile narrative of hate and division across our communities,” he said.
“While millions may have stood on our doorsteps clapping key workers from across the globe putting their lives at risk to save ours, conflicts continue across the globe, millions face human slavery and genocide,” Turner continued. “And as the horrific killing of George Lloyd last summer and the appalling scenes at the Capitol building just a couple of weeks ago demonstrate, racism, intolerance and the weaponising of hate can challenge our very democracy.
“Holocaust Memorial Day gives us the opportunity to not only keep alive the truth and horror of fascism – the extermination of six million Jews, socialists and gypsies, the disabled and gay alongside thousands of trade unionists, but about genocides across the globe, from Cambodia and Rwanda to Bosnia and Dafur – atrocities waged with the aim of exterminating a people due to ethnical, racial or religious differences.”
In addition to its Unity Over Division work, Unite has also sponsored trips, organised by United Against Fascism, for its young members to visit Auschwitz.
Unite member Lily Chasteau, who serves as the union’s vice chair of the South West young members committee, was among those who went on the last Auschwitz trip in September 2019.
Reflecting on the trip just over a year later, Lily told UniteLIVE what an invaluable experience it was.
“The part that I remember most vividly of the trip was walking through the Auschwitz Museum and seeing the glass cases filled with tens of thousands of children’s shoes and piles of women’s hair – it’s one of those things that you can never get out of your head after seeing it,” she said.
Although Lily said she was fairly knowledgeable about the Holocaust, there were many things she learned on the trip that she did not realise before.
“I didn’t realise how consciously the Nazis had to trick people about what lay in store for them – the fact that they asked them to write their addresses on their suitcases, telling them they were just being moved elsewhere and not in fact being transported to their deaths,” she said. “That level of deceit I found really shocking.”
More than anything, the trip to Auschwitz for Lily hammered home the importance of collectively remembering the horrors of the Holocaust.
“One of the speakers during the trip said that an atrocity like the Holocaust could probably never happen again on the same scale because prior to the Holocaust nobody every believed that something like that could happen,” she explained “But now we know that it can happen – because it did. And I think there’s power in that knowledge — knowing that yes, things could actually get the bad. We have to make sure that we’re prepared for it and conscious of it so that it doesn’t happen again.
“We always say ‘never forget’, but we say it without really thinking about it. When you actually stop and think about what it means, it’s a very powerful statement.”
Unite national officer for equalities Harish Patel agreed, and also urged everyone to take part in observing Holocaust Memorial Day today (January 27).
“While we cannot mark Holocaust Memorial Day in the usual way with in-person events, it is absolutely vital that we continue to honour the lives of the millions of people tortured and murdered in the Holocaust and other genocides,” he said.
“The rising tide of fascism and racism across Europe and the globe will only further fester in times of crisis, and we cannot allow that to happen. As the Holocaust Memorial Trust this year highlights, it is individual and collective resistance to racism and xenophobia that stops these evils from growing unchecked, and we all have a part to play. When we make a commitment to ‘never forget’, we equally ensure ‘never again’.”
You can find out more about Holocaust Memorial Day — which will this year include online events — and how you can take part here.
By Hajera Blagg