What you’d’ve done is what you’re doing

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Today we remember six million Jews butchered by nationalism, extremism, an insanity of industrial scapegoating that also took people with disabilities, gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyone who didn’t fit Hitler’s jigsaw of crazed mythmaking.

And so the Holocaust now lives in our collective psyche, totemic names like Frank and Schindler and Auschwitz representing years of horror, a time in which the world broke, language spasmed, birthing showers that weren’t showers and humans made non-human by the stroke of a pen. We see it as a black and white world in more ways than one, maybe because the horror is too much to take otherwise. “It can’t happen here,” we say, a mantra to cast it all into the abyss, a relic of a unique historical breakdown. Maybe that’s why so many people are keen to say it never happened, maybe erasure makes the demons and the victims and the survivors of the past look a little less like us.

We’ve all asked ourselves what we’d do under those circumstances, whether we’d run or fight, whether we’d collaborate or resist, whether we’d hide someone in the basement or simply call the secret police. Some of us even have the privilege to pretend we could mind our own business.

But while the Holocaust was a long time ago now, we’re not divorced from it; what we would have done then is what we’re doing now. It’s how we respond to antisemitism. It’s how we talk about Muslims or immigrants. It’s how we react to gay men in Chechnya being rounded up by the government.

These things happen now. Those people in the pictures aren’t us, but their soundtrack rhymes with ours. You could end up in a camp. You could be an informer. You can join in a whole new Krystallnacht, you can resist.

Or, if you’re lucky, you can pretend it’s none of your business. That’s an option for some of us. No-one’s knocking on our door yet.

But there’s always someone knocking somewhere. “Never Again” can be a mantra, a prayer, a lie, but most of all, above everything else, Never Again is a duty.

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Holocaust Memorial Day

I had this post all planned out. An outline sits there in my notebook, but it’s been overtaken by events. I wanted to write about the importance of remembrance, but that’s a privileged position to be in. After all, no-one’s painted a swastika on my door. I’m not facing down antisemitism and hate crimes.

I saw the fascist stickers while walking near work, all iconography and buzzwords so loud you could hear the dogwhistle above the noise of the traffic. It’s not like that area’s been free of far right activity, and bussed-in protesters once turned up to march through the town, but this has been the week in which the Internet took to its keyboards to argue whether we should debate the new fascists or simply punch them. That very conversation has seen something normalised that has been lurking and festering and growing in strength, until suddenly it hit a new stage of evolution and became a source of dapper fashion icons.

Here’s the thing about the Holocaust: it was never an isolated, sealed-off set of historic events that we can safely quarantine and say “Never again.” Europe’s Jews (and also Roma, trade unionists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people and people with disabilities), shouldn’t be reduced to anonymous victims remembered only through their murder, weren’t merely a tally of stars and different coloured triangles; it wasn’t a case of that was then and that was them, those killed in the Holocaust were us. So were the perpetrators. It can happen here.

Millions of people died in Europe seventy years ago, industrialised mass murder of anyone who didn’t fit, driven by rhetoric and posters and language and weaponised prejudice. We remember this as an atrocity that scarred the continent, we see numbers tattooed on arms and feel the awful weight of a history that feels at once far away, but also spoiling for a resurgence. We hear its echoes in those stickers I saw, in swastikas sprayed onto synagogues, in hate crimes and hate speech, in every attempt to convince us there are monsters under our beds. We encounter it when we hear it said that Jews were hoaxing the Holocaust, that there were no gas chambers, that they’re in charge of everything behind the scenes. The whispered lies of the Protocols still haunt us.

But if the bad echoes down the decades, so does the good. Frank Foley lived and died just a few miles down the road from those stickers; during the war he saved tens of thousands of Jews from the death camps. The Righteous of the Nations still walk the earth.

So Holocaust Memorial Day presents us with a choice; not just to remember or forget, but a choice of who we become. Do we stand against the propaganda and the hate, whoever that’s targeted at this time? Do we allow ourselves to get swept along in its currents because it’s easier to go with the flow, no matter how many drown in the maelstrom? Do we draw the curtains, hide behind the sofa, make our mantra “It can’t happen here”, even as it does?

There will be those who choose the darkness; there always are. They must be fought. So take your pick of weapons: marches or mockery, stories or songs, politics, pictures, history, heroism, hope. There are so many ways to resist.

Choices, choices, choices have consequences, and the choice to march enthusiastically into the darkness or to draw a line in the sand remains ours alone. And never forget: the sum total of these choices, small but escalating, decides the future of millions of people; it marks the difference between Holocaust and hope.