Be the light: some reflections on Holocaust Memorial Day

Emma King giving the keynote presentation at a Holocaust Memorial Day event in Huddersfield in 2020. Image courtesy of John Steele Photography.

There are many reasons why this January is unlike any other. An unusual one for me is that this is the first time in over a decade that I haven't been directly involved in Holocaust Memorial Day. This international event commemorates the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by Soviet troops on 27th January 1945. It is a day when communities across the world remember the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, five million more victims of Nazi persecution, and the people murdered in genocides that have taken place since then, including in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur


The photo above shows me at the Holocaust Exhibition & Learning Centre in Huddersfield, hosting last year's HMD event in my then role as director of the Centre. I was paying tribute to former Holocaust refugee Heinz Skyte who had passed away less than a month earlier, six weeks shy of his 100th birthday. I often wonder what Heinz, who had retained his independence despite being hard of hearing and extremely frail, would have made of lockdown. I know that many survivors have found the pandemic lockdown incredibly difficult, not least because the isolation has increased the burden of traumatic memories from their past.  


This year the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is 'Be the light in the darkness', which seems particularly apt in a year of great challenges. The theme invites us to stand up against Holocaust denial, distortion and misinformation and to reflect on the importance of kindness, which we all have in our power no matter how small our actions may seem to be. I plan to attend an online commemoration run by the Six Million Plus Trust in partnership with Kirklees Council. Their events are always moving and personal, with reflection not only on the events of the past but on their meaning for us today. 


The past 12 months have thrown up numerous contemporary examples of how denial and distortion can rapidly take hold even as events are still unfolding. Misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories about Covid-19 have proliferated online and are having a real and damaging impact, for example on the willingness of vulnerable people to be vaccinated. Then we all watched in horror as the attack on the US Capitol unfolded earlier this month, fuelled by lies and misinformation spread by the outgoing President in an entirely predictable culmination of his approach to truth, facts and the media over the previous four years. This is not the time for me to go into the debate around social media platforms and so-called 'free speech' but the rapid advances in communication technologies and the power we invest in social media companies clearly present a challenge to democracy with no easy solution.  


So why am I talking about all this in the context of Holocaust Memorial Day? For me these issues speak to the central challenge of commemorations such as HMD: they commemorate the past, but in order to be meaningful they also need to draw out the relevance to the present and here lies the challenge. There is a danger that taking too general approach can drain an event of meaning: it's easy to use platitudes like 'never again', but we all know that this isn't true. High profile commemorations can risk becoming a platform for virtue signalling: it makes me slightly queasy when the politicians who queue up to sign a Book of Condolence to the victims of the Holocaust are the same ones denying sanctuary to unaccompanied child refugees in a grim reverse echo of the celebrated policy that enabled the Kindertransports to save 10,000 children from the Nazis in the 1930s. Clearly this isn't the commemoration's fault, but it illustrates the limitations of a format that is focused on awareness raising rather than exploration and can be overly burdened with expectations. Finally, focusing too much on contemporary parallels risks missing the point: that a commemoration event is there to remember the past, to focus on the experiences of the people who were there, and to ensure we don't forget, because the murder of 11 million people is not something we should ever forget.


It's important to recognise that commemoration isn't the same as education. An act of commemoration can be powerful and meaningful but it's not the same as trying to understand the events of the past through exploring evidence (and its absence), context and complexity. For me, commemoration events such as HMD are most effective when they are a gateway for educational programming that go beyond lighting candles and start to explore the significance and complexity of events. The Museums Association has a useful summary of how cultural organisations have been working towards the anniversary this year and it's encouraging to see a diverse range of projects with young people, inculding work focusing on young people's mental health and an event from the National Holocaust Centre and Museum debating the so-called 'racial science' that was used to justify the persecution of both Black and Jewish communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This kind of work, bringing together academic research and contemporary relevance, is where I see the future for Holocaust education and commemoration and an important role for museums as places with a remit to collect and interpret the past. With that in mind I'm really pleased to learn about the launch of the Holocaust and Genocide Research Partnership, which brings together university academics and public-facing institutions to try to bridge the yawning gap between public understanding of the Holocaust and current academic research. I spent many hours in meetings to establish the basis for the partnership when I worked for the HSFA and it's great to see it finally coming to fruition. 


Holocaust educator and curator Paul Salmons writes eloquently on his blog about the danger of using the Holocaust as a means of teaching predetermined 'moral lessons' that are supposedly inherent in the past and which can serve to quietly omit the more uncomfortable aspects that don't fit the narrative. Here I think is the real link with the present: it's not in drawing parallels between the 1930s and the present day, which can easily become reduced to a tabloid headline and meaningless comparisons to Hitler. It's about avoiding simple parallels - however tempting - and focusing on how detailed academic and curatorial research can reveal aspects of the past that help illuminate the issues facing us and challenge our comfortable world view. An ability to think critically, interrogate evidence and question assumptions is one of most powerful defences anyone can have against lies and misinformation in a democratic setting, and these are exactly the skills that Holocaust education - in fact good history education - can offer us today. Anniversaries like Holocaust Memorial Day offer a valuable opportunity to capture people's attention, illuminate these issues and give them a chance to find out more.


Image credit: John Steel Photography.