75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, it’s terrifying how urgent the fight against global atrocities has become

As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day in an increasingly divided world, let us not forget the importance of standing together against genocide

Rabina Khan
Monday 27 January 2020 14:11 GMT
Holocaust Memorial Day: three unsung heroes who helped Europe's Jews escape the Nazis

Every year, on Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust by the Nazi regime, but this year marks the anniversary of two atrocities: 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and 25 years since the end of the genocide in Bosnia.

This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme is “Stand Together”, reflecting on how regimes used policies and propaganda to create a Us and Them situation to divide neighbours, friends and communities.

Looking back, we can see how the Nazi regime influenced people’s attitudes through propaganda, disseminating powerful messages about who should and shouldn’t be included in German society; in this case Jewish people.

The lead up to the Holocaust and subsequent genocides in history deliberately separated people, resulting in certain groups being treated as "the other" by relying on stereotypes and existing prejudices to propagate hate and dehumanise persecuted groups.

The Nuremberg Laws in September 1935 banned Jews from marrying non-Jews; their citizenship and their right to vote were also removed, and eventually Jewish children were not allowed to attend state schools.

In 1991, Bosnian Serb forces wanted to identify Bosnian Muslims and forced non-Serbs to wear white armbands and fly white flags outside their homes. Once identified, they were removed from their homes and often put into concentration camps.

Similarly, in the Vietnam War, propaganda was used extensively by Communist forces to control people’s opinions, as did Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, general Ratko Mladić’s command in Bosnia, the government of Sudan’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Darfur’s non-Arabs, and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Recently, India’s parliament passed a bill that offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Although the constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees all citizens legal equality, this bill effectively divides migrants into Muslims and non-Muslims.

In the UK, we are seeing an exodus of EU migrants in the wake of Brexit, driving out a dedicated workforce who have provided essential services to the NHS and countless other organisations. In addition, there was a spike in hate crimes against EU citizens following the EU referendum.

Edwin Shuker, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, couldn't have better summed up this year's theme. “The Holocaust was designed to physically eliminate the Jews as a people. It places a unique responsibility on us to stand by any threatened group. The Board of Deputies is currently highlighting the plight of the Uighurs as a priority."

No one can change the world by themselves, but each person has the capacity to contribute to positive change, however small. Last week, for example, I attended a vigil outside Mowlem School in east London following antisemitic comments on a wall opposite the school. We stood together in a small group to object to the divisive symbols. Regardless of the scale of such hatred, coming together against it is incredibly important in these times.

There are, thankfully, many examples of brave and inspiring people who have helped and supported those who were being persecuted in their communities and countries, regardless of the possible consequences. Moshe and Gabriela Mandil and their children Gavra and Irena fled their home in Yugoslavia when the Germans invaded in April 1941 and made their way to Albania where they were taken in and hidden by an Albanian Muslim family called the Veselis. The Veselis’ also hid another Jewish family but when questioned by the Nazis, the village never exposed their secret.

Many other Jews were saved like this and the Albanians’ refusal to comply with the Nazis’ genocidal policies was grounded in "Besa", the highest ethical code of honour in the country, which means literally “to keep the promise”. These were remarkable acts of compassion and a desire to help those in need, regardless of faith or origin.

As we mark the Holocaust in this divided world, let us remember how humanity has and will continue to stand together against genocide. We are stronger when we demonstrate humanity towards others. ​

Rabina Khan is a Liberal Democrat councillor and special advisor to Liberal Democrat leader House of Lords

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