It is a sobering truth that our world today is scarred by genocide; from the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust to other genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. Holocaust Memorial Day, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, is a time to remember those who were persecuted in these genocides, ensuring their lives, experiences, families, and cultures are never forgotten. As a Regional Ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust, I would like to encourage you to do just that.
Events in Bristol
There are many ways to come together and reflect. One of the events organised by Bristolians for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is a showcase of over fifty contemporary portraits of Holocaust survivors and their families at the Royal Photographic Society in Bristol. This event shines a light on the full life stories of survivors whilst also highlighting our collective responsibility to protect their memories. It was this sense of collective responsibility and the need to rehumanize those who suffered during the Holocaust that inspired me and other Regional Ambassadors from the Holocaust Educational Trust to share some of the survivor stories that have touched us.
Working with the Holocaust Educational Trust and Generation2Generation, an organisation that helps the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors tell their family stories, we have organised two separate events for University of Bristol students and Bristol’s secondary school pupils. These events will include presentations by Generation2Generation speakers, Vera Bernstein and Anita Peleg, who will share the stories of their mothers and how they survived the Holocaust.
Anita’s mother, Naomi Blake, was born in 1924 to a large Jewish family, part of the then thriving Jewish community of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia. But like so many of Europe’s Jewish communities which targeted by the Third Reich and its collaborators, Mukacevo’s Jewish community was all-but destroyed. Naomi and her family were first taken to Auschwitz concentration camp, with Naomi and her sister subsequently being moved to Brahnau concentration camp. During the final days of the war, in a bid to flee the Russian armies, their Nazi captors forced the prisoners to march. This was when Naomi managed to escape and finally make the long journey home. She returned to Mukacevo in July 1945 to find that her home was in ruins and seventeen family members, including ten young nieces and nephews, had been murdered.
Her journey then took her to Palestine, where she rebuilt her life, and then finally to London where, after attending the Hornsey School of Art, her career as a sculptor flourished. One of her sculptures, ‘Refugee’, can be found today in the gardens of our very own Bristol Cathedral. It depicts what Naomi saw as a refugee’s experience, showing a crouched figure sitting with their knees drawn up inside the hollowed-out representation of a leaf.
Why memorialisation is so important
Remembering and sharing these stories is as important as ever. Just last year research by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust discovered that one in twenty British adults did not believe that the Holocaust really happened, with 8% taking the view that accounts of the Holocaust had been exaggerated. The only way we can challenge these falsehoods is through education, highlighting the immense importance of the work of organisations like the Holocaust Educational Trust and Generation2Generation.
Whether it is through viewing a portrait exhibition, listening to survivor testimony, or visiting Naomi’s sculpture to reflect on her legacy, it is our responsibility to continue to learn from the past, and to act for a better future. When racism, discrimination, hatred, and intolerance remain unchallenged, they become normalised, creating an environment where genocide can take place.
In the immortal words of Holocaust survivor, and Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, ‘anyone who listens to a witness, becomes a witness’. So I urge you to do what you can, learn from the past and honour the legacy of all those who have suffered.