'We must stand together united'

Unite observes Holocaust Memorial Day - and highlights the difference that 'ordinary people' can make in fight against hatred and intolerance

Reading time: 9 min

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27) when people across the world gather to remember the more than 6m Jewish people who were massacred in the Holocaust, as well as the millions more who were likewise murdered in other genocides, including in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia and others.

This year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD), which is decided each year by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is ‘ordinary people’.

The Trust said that this year’s theme “highlights the ordinary people who let genocide happen, the ordinary people who actively perpetrated genocide, and the ordinary people who were persecuted.

“Our theme will also prompt us to consider how ordinary people, such as ourselves, can perhaps play a bigger part than we might imagine in challenging prejudice today,” the Trust added.

Unite assistant general secretary for equalities Diana Holland said Holocaust Memorial Day is an absolutely vital day in Unite’s calendar.

“It’s so important to take that time to reflect on the day itself, and for us at Unite, it’s also a stepping stone for wider workplace and community action,” she explained.

“We’ve all seen the sad and horrifying rise of intolerance, racism and xenophobia, both in the UK and around the world. Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us why we need to take action to stem the rising tide of hate before it’s too late by remembering the Holocaust and all genocides.

“This year’s theme is ‘ordinary people’, and it’s a time to remember the ordinary people targeted by the Holocaust — six million Jews, trade unionists, disabled people, LGBT+ and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities,” Diana added.

“Hopefully through our Unite event people will learn that while it is ordinary people that can create hatred and be bystanders, it is also ordinary people who can make a huge difference in the never-ending fight against extremism, intolerance and discrimination.”

Diana highlighted Unite’s long-running equalities and Unity over Division campaigning, which not only aims to ensure equal work, voice, and pay for all, but is also aimed at equipping officers and activists with counter-arguments to challenge far-right, divisive, 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 and other regimes that perpetrated genocides to rise to prominence and carry out their horrific crimes against humanity,” she told UniteLive. “We honour the victims and survivors of genocide by taking action to ensure this can never happen again. Everyone has a role to play – even ordinary people like all of us.”

‘Everyone has a role to play’

This year, Unite is hosting a special online event next week for Holocaust Memorial Day observations on Tuesday (January 31) from 6.30pm to 7.30pm and is encouraging all Unite members to sign up and join.

Next week’s event will be an hour long, in a webinar format. It will feature several speakers, including two genocide survivors – John Hadju MBE, a survivor of the Holocaust in Hungary who lived under the subsequent socialist regime in Budapest, as well as Sokphal Din BEM, who endured hard labour in the Killing Fields and eventually survived the genocide in Cambodia by escaping to Thai refugee camps.

Sokphal and John, who both eventually settled in the UK, epitomise the theme of ‘Ordinary People’ even though they endured an extraordinary amount of pain and suffering during the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide respectively.

Sokphal spoke to UniteLive ahead of our event.

‘I looked forward to a bright future’

Sokphal and his family were forced out of their homes by Khmer Rouge soldiers when the Cambodian genocide began in 1975. At the time, Sokphal was just 17 years old.

Before Sokphal endured his living nightmare that still haunts him to this day, he was just an ordinary person from an ordinary family, he said.

“I was a 17-year-old student and I had a dream to be a doctor,” he explained. “I really just wanted to help people and make people feel better. I came from an ordinary middle-class family and we were very close. My family was in business and we lived comfortably. I had everything I needed and I was looking forward to a bright future.”

“Then in 24 hours my life turned upside down,” Sokphal added. “Things would never be the same again.”

Sokphal said when he and his family were first forced from their homes at gunpoint and ordered to start walking out of the capital Phnom Penh, he couldn’t process the reality.

“I thought this must be some sort of huge prank,” he told UniteLive. “I just couldn’t believe it. But there was no denying what I witnessed – you could smell the blood in the streets, the smell of gunpowder, burning houses. Imagine witnessing a huge city like London become totally uninhabitable overnight. There was no electricity, no water and we just walked and walked. You had to keep moving or you’d be shot right there on the spot.”

For the next several years, Sokphal endured unimaginable horrors, including being forced into hard labour seven days a week in camps that became known as the Killing Fields; being later abandoned in the jungle with no food and water where his grandmother and young six-year-old brother perished; and then being forced into the Khmer Rouge army, captured by the opposing Vietnamese army and interrogated and tortured.


Sokphal said he desperately clung on to hope in order to survive.

“I was young then and what kept me going was the support of my mother, and the dreams I had for the future,” he explained. “It was really my mother who gave me the strength to carry on. I also gave my father my word that I would look after my mother and siblings so that kept me going, too.”

Sokphal added that he was very lucky to have survived, as he evaded many executions.

“I just feel like it’s my destiny to have survived what I did so that I can tell people about what we went through, so that people remember,” he added.

One of the most heart-wrenching things for Sokphal is that he and his family lost literally everything in the genocide – not a single photograph has survived, nor any of his belongings.

“It’s as though I lived an entirely separate life,” he explained. “My mother loved taking photos when we were younger and all of that is gone. When we were in the labour camps we weren’t allowed to talk about our past at all, or else you would be executed. So sometimes everything feels like it was a dream – like it didn’t happen.”

‘Stand together united’

Although Sokphal said it was at first difficult to talk about all that he experienced, he said he “kept practicing” because he now feels it is his duty to educate the wider world about what happened in Cambodia.

He said that it was especially important that young people are informed about genocide because far too many don’t know the past – and so they risk being doomed to repeat it.

“In order to ensure that no one has to go through the same atrocities again, we need to stand together united and bring people together and educate them,” Sokphal explained. “We need to be compassionate and help and support each other.”

Sokphal said that such compassion and unity was never more important than now, during a global cost of living crisis when such crises often lead to division in our communities that fuels hatred.

“Each and every one of us has to ask ourselves every day, ‘What am I doing to help people? Am I doing something today for the greater good?’ Even the smallest thing will make a difference. We have to be kind and caring to one another.”

You can register for Unite’s Holocaust Memorial Day event, which will take place on Tuesday, January 31 online at 6.30pm here. Organisers of the event will follow up with attendees about how they can take what they’ve learned into their workplaces.

For more information

John Hadju MBE, a Holocaust survivor, will join Sokphal in speaking at Unite’s event on Tuesday (January 31). You can read a short biography of John on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s website here.

John has written a memoir entitled Life in Two Countries, which you can download and read here.

Sokphal has also written a book about his experiences, entitled The Killing Fields of Cambodia: Surviving a Living Hell which you can purchase here. If you would like a signed copy, you can contact Sokphal directly via email at [email protected]

By Hajera Blagg