Holocaust Memorial Day is as much about the future as the past

As we approach a time when there will be no more survivors, focus is intensifying on recording their stories and learning the lessons of then – for now

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Last week a Conservative Party investigation found MP Aidan Burley had “caused deep offence” by organising a Nazi-themed stag party and buying an SS uniform for the groom. Members of the group reportedly chanted: “Mein Fuhrer”, “Himmler” and “Eichmann” and toasted the Third Reich.

Mr Burley, who was forced to resign as a ministerial aide, is not anti-Semitic. Nothing he has said or done before or since suggests otherwise. This was simply a stupid, badly-judged stunt. Any 10-year-old, let alone an MP, should have damn well known better.

What’s most troubling is that his idiotic behaviour says something much more worrying about wider society.

Opinion poll after opinion poll shows how little the public knows or cares about the Holocaust. A recent survey indicated that one in 20 British schoolchildren think Adolf Hitler was a German football coach and one in six believe Auschwitz is a theme park.

In 2005, when Prince Harry wore a swastika armband at a fancy-dress party, a newspaper survey indicated more than half of 18-24-year-olds thought the prince’s choice of costume was perfectly acceptable.

If youngsters can’t see the problem, then we really are in trouble.

That’s why we need Holocaust Memorial Day, which is being held today on the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Hundreds of tributes have been taking place across the UK, including a national commemoration in Westminster and a Downing Street reception hosted by David Cameron.

These events serve as a reminder to the British public that the Holocaust was a catastrophe for all humankind, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions that cannot simply be consigned to the history books.

Nearly 75 years later, fresh information about Nazi depravity still emerges, from the number of labour and concentration camps – now estimated at 15,000 – to the extent of the cover up.

Hitler relied on a conspiracy of silence to achieve his unparalleled slaughter – the same wicked acquiescence from witnesses and bystanders that emboldened subsequent tyrants, like Bashar Assad. Today is an opportunity for us all to reflect not only on where racism and prejudice leads the human race, but how we as individuals respond to pure evil in others.

Although the Holocaust is unique to the memory of the Jews, it forces us to think about our response to modern massacres, from Bosnia and Rwanda to Syria and Libya, where we are only just discovering the depths of Gaddafi’s depravity.

As we approach a time when there will be no more survivors, focus is intensifying on recording their stories and learning the lessons of then – for now.

David Cameron recently set up a new Holocaust Commission, including actress Helena Bonham Carter, broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky and senior politicians from the three main parties, to consider ways to heed the Holocaust’s lessons.

Lessons still need to be learned, taught and understood from the greatest tragedy of the last century. That is why Holocaust Memorial Day is as much about the future as the past.

It’s here to remind the next generation to say never again, and to keep saying never again until we finally get the message.

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