Last survivors remember Europe’s worst horror

‘Work makes you free’: The chilling and utterly dishonest message above the gates to Auschwitz.

The final survivors of the Nazis’ nightmarish concentration camps will gather tomorrow, along with royalty and heads of state, to remember the Holocaust. What lessons does it have for today?

‘Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which...The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life...’

These were the harrowing words used by the BBC broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, as he stumbled across the nightmarish scenes at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, newly liberated by British troops in 1945. As the allied forces swept across the continent at the end of the second world war, they came face to face with the appalling remnants of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution‘ — the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews.

On Tuesday, a large group of the camps’ remaining survivors will gather to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. All over the world, people will pause to remember and reflect.

The scale of human destruction at the hands of the Nazis almost defies belief, as do the tales of prisoners having to dig their own graves, before being starved or gassed to death. Six million Jews died during the Holocaust — around 78% of the 7.3 million in occupied Europe. It is among the largest genocides ever; the culmination of years of discrimination that engulfed Germany when Hitler stormed to power in 1933.

It was not just the Jews who were targeted. Political opponents, Roma and Gypsies, homosexuals, prisoners of conscience and people with physical and mental disabilities were killed or died in camps as a result of neglect, starvation or disease, bringing the total death toll to over 11 million.

Reflection on these horrors is more important now than ever. This year will be the last major anniversary for which a significant number of Holocaust survivors are present. At the 60th anniversary, 1,500 survivors attended. This year about 300 are expected, most in their 90s. In the words of one, it will be ‘a moment of passage, a passing of the baton.’

Never again

Was the Holocaust a unique event? Some think so. No genocide before or since has been carried out with such systematic rigour, on such a sickening scale, by such a developed and supposedly ‘civilised’ nation. It revealed the 'banality of evil’ and sparked a global rethink of legal judgement and morality. Comparing it to other atrocities diminishes its unique horror.

But that’s not to say it couldn’t happen again, others reply. The Nazis were monsters, but they were also ordinary people consumed by a paranoid, racist fantasy that still lingers in pockets of Europe today. We must not dismiss this as an aberration consigned to the history books: every society harbours the capacity for evils no less terrible.

You Decide

  1. Was the Holocaust a unique event?
  2. Why is it important to remember the Holocaust? What can we learn from it?

Activities

  1. Design a timeline which shows the build-up of Jewish persecution under Nazi rule.
  2. Write a diary extract, imagining you are a German living under the Nazis.

Some People Say...

“The road to Auschwitz was laid by hatred, but it was paved with apathy.”

Ian Kershaw

What do you think?

Q & A

The Holocaust would never happen again, would it?
It seems highly unlikely, particularly as the poison of Nazi ideology permeated all strata of society. The Holocaust sparked a massive wave of revulsion and soul-searching across Europe, and gave birth to concepts such as International Human Rights Law. Yet anti-Semitism still exists, and some people say that it is getting worse.
Is it getting worse?
The Israel-Gaza conflict last summer caused a large spike in anti-Semitic attacks across Europe, and many Jews have expressed fear in the wake of the horrendous terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month, in which four Jews were murdered. Yet while it is important to take a stand against all forms of prejudice and racism, we should not allow fear to give way to hysteria.

Word Watch

Richard Dimbleby
Dimbleby broke down several times while making his report. The BBC initially refused to play it, as they could not believe the scenes he had described. It was only broadcast after Dimbleby threatened to resign.
Bergen-Belsen
Bergen-Belsen began as a prisoner of war camp and was used for Jewish inmates from 1943 onwards. It is estimated that 70,000 people died there.
Final Solution
The Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish population in Germany. The policy was formulated at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942.
Discrimination
In the years preceding the Holocaust, the biggest single blow was Kristallnacht, when Jewish shops and synagogues were smashed and burned. Jews were expelled from jobs and schools and they were forced to wear a yellow star.
‘Banality of evil’
A phrase coined by the writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt, who witnessed the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the key organisers of the Holocaust. She argued that the crimes were even more horrific because they had become accepted and routinised, implemented without moral revulsion.