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23rd January 2021

Holocaust Memorial Day 2021: What does it mean and why should we remember?

Holocaust Memorial Day is commemorated internationally, but what is the true significance of this date, and why is it vital to remember atrocities of the past?
Holocaust Memorial Day 2021: What does it mean and why should we remember?
Photo by Kerry McCall

27th January marks the day that Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated in 1945. Today, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a memorial site that is recognised internationally as a symbol for the Holocaust – a genocide carried out by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945, resulting in the systematic killing of six million Jews across Europe.

Holocaust Memorial Day functions to commemorate not only the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but all those who were persecuted by the Nazis (including disabled people, the Roma, black people, homosexuals and political opponents) as well as the victims of more recent genocides.

What is Holocaust Memorial Day?

The 27th January ensures that atrocities such as the Holocaust are not forgotten. Various organisations that mark this date, such as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, highlight that ‘the Holocaust threatened the fabric of civilization, and genocide must still be resisted every day’.

Given the attention drawn to issues of racism and discrimination throughout 2020, society is not short of examples which demonstrate the continued importance of resisting hatred and prejudice.

In the West, the Holocaust is widely recognised as the stand out example of evil. Yet, the additional cases of genocide that have taken, and are still taking place, suggest that humanity has a way to go before demonstrating it has learnt its lesson.

Has genocide occurred since 1945?

Genocide is defined as the systematic killing of people from a particular nation or ethnic group, with the intent of destroying that group. Unfortunately, many more instances of genocide have taken place since the Holocaust and some are still taking place today. Looking at a timeline of some of these catastrophes highlights a bleak reality: genocide is not a thing of the past. In fact, it occurs far more regularly than one may suspect.

Cambodia, 1975-1979: After seizing power in 1975, the communist regime of the Khumer Rouge party in Cambodia began killing people in a bid to remove social classes and Western influence.  Ethnic minority groups, religious groups, those with professional jobs and people who knew foreign languages all risked being shot or killed by the state. Eventually, the situation grew so ruthless that people were being killed simply for wearing glasses, or laughing. It is estimated that over two million civilians died on the Cambodian ‘Killing Fields’ during this genocide.

Rwanda, 1994: After civil war broke out amid tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis, the Hutu president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down in a plane in April 1994. Following his death, Hutu extremists placed blame on the Tutsis, resulting in widespread radio broadcasts instructing Hutu people to kill all of the Tutsis. Over the course of 100 days, approximately one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in their homes, schools and churches, often by people they knew or had previously been friends with.

Bosnia, 1995: After Bosnia declared its independence following the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, civil war broke out between the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats. The Bosnian Serbs, who rejected independence and wanted to become part of a ‘Greater Serbia’, began a campaign of genocide in order to fulfil their political aims. In July 1995, Bosnian Serb troops forcibly separated Bosnian Muslim men and boys from women and children in Srebrenica. From 13th July, 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed over 72 hours.

Darfur: 2003-present: A civil war in the west of Sudan began in 2003 between the black African farmers and the nomadic Arab population. With the support of the Sudanese government, the Arab militia has destroyed thousands of villages and farms whilst murdering the people who live there. Estimates for the number of people killed stands between 200,000 and 400,000, though it is expected to be much higher. Around 2.6 million people are currently displaced in Darfur having been forced to flee their homes and live in refugee camps.

China, 2017-present: Most widely discussed today is news of the 1.5 million Uighur Muslims being detained in ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang, China. Though some have referred to this as a ‘cultural genocide’ rather than a ‘literal genocide’, the actions of the Chinese government indicate genocidal tendencies, and many NGOs and government officials have condemned the treatment of the Uighurs as genocide. Inside these camps, it is reported that Uighurs are doing forced labour, being brainwashed, women are being sterilised and given involuntary contraception and many are being forced to change their names. What we know about these camps is limited, but signals point to there being clear parallels between what is going on in China, and past cases of genocide.

Why is it important we remember Holocaust Memorial Day?

By remembering the victims of genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day, we are reminded of the fragility of society and of peace. Previous social and political conditions that precede the outcome of genocide are comparable to some conditions we see today.

Remembering the six million Jews who were murdered, the victims of Nazi persecution, and those who were killed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan reminds us what humans are capable of and ensures that the trauma of those who have lived through genocide is sufficiently recognised.

The 27th January, therefore, gives us the opportunity to reflect on current affairs and their potential implications, by looking back on the past and listening to the memories of those who have been directly affected by genocide, persecution and prejudice.

This year, commemorations for Holocaust Memorial Day are taking place virtually across a number of different platforms. If you want to take part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s virtual ceremony, follow this link to sign up to the online event, which will be taking place from 6.45pm on 27th January.

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