In 2019, Holocaust survivor Charlotte Berger-Greneche made a point of visiting the former school of Cork woman Mary Elmes, the woman who helped to save her life, because she wanted to tell the next generation of the horrors of World War ll.
Soon, she said, there will be no more witnesses to the systematic mass murder of 6m Jews and millions of others, and we need to tell them what happened.
“What I must tell you is not to forget the past,” she told the 520 students and their parents assembled before her on Ashton School’s annual prize day that September. Past pupil Mary Elmes had just been inducted into the school’s hall of fame for her humanitarian work during the Spanish Civil War and World War ll.
During the latter, in 1942, the aid worker and her colleagues spirited Charlotte and some 400 other children out of a camp in France, saving them from deportation to Auschwitz, the concentration camp complex in south-west Poland liberated on this day in 1945.
It was the site of the largest mass murder in a single location in human history. According to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the German SS murdered almost 1m of the 1.1m Jews deported to the camp — including Charlotte’s mother, Zirl Berger, who, her daughter recalled several decades later, was taken away on a cattle-wagon as “if she was a parcel”.
There wasn’t a sound in the packed auditorium as the quietly spoken 80-year-old said: “We have to take the lessons of the past because things can always happen again. We have to be very careful.”
She continued: “The advice we can give to you and to everyone is to read and make your own opinion. Don’t be influenced by propaganda or people who tell you to hate another person because they are different.
I remember the standing ovation and the prolonged applause still as Ashton School paid tribute to the woman saved by one of its past pupils.
Georges Koltein, also taken from a transit camp in south-west France by Mary Elmes, was present that day too. Both survivors had travelled from France to Cork for the inauguration of the city’s pedestrian bridge that bears Mary Elmes’ name and, like Charlotte, he was particularly keen to tell young people not to forget what happened.
School principal Adrian Landen said afterwards: “We have been left with something precious and enduring from that day that we will never forget.”
But today, on Holocaust Memorial Day, how many of us will take the time to recall what we have been warned not to forget?
How many of us will stop to consider how the repugnant scenes of human depravity at Auschwitz, discovered by Soviet troops 76 years ago today, are still relevant in our day-to-day lives?
If we do remember — and we do in the dignified ceremony organised by Holocaust Education Trust Ireland annually — will we do so content in the belief that this could never happen now?
But this could happen again, or a form of it. Many Holocaust survivors have warned us not to be complacent. As Tomi Reichental, who was sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944, has said, again and again, during his wonderful public talks and school visits, the Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers; it started with words.
He tells the heartrending story of losing his own name, as his football friends went from calling him Tomi in goals to dirty Jew, as a wave of anti-Semitism took hold in his native Slovakia.
Now, with authoritarianism, xenophobic nationalism and racism on the rise, Holocaust Memorial Day has never been more relevant.
The last four years of the Trump administration have underlined the urgent need for that. The man himself may be out of office, but he has left in his wake a carelessness with words that can, as we have seen most recently with the storming of the United States Capitol, strike at the very heart of democracy.
In this internet age of post-truth, it is easy to spread hatred and discontent. Former president (how refreshing to write those words) Trump was a master at it. To take one example, his "delay the election" tweet last July was just over 40 words long but, according to Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, it ticked all eight rules for fascist propaganda.
In one short dispatch, the ex-president contradicted himself, lied about a fraudulent election, designated enemies, manufactured a voting crisis, appealed to the pride of the US people to avoid embarrassment, was hostile to voting, cast doubt on democracy and aimed for personal power. Quite an achievement.
For reference, here is the tweet. “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” Excellent material for a media studies class.
Given the climate, it is very welcome to see that Oliver Sears, the Dublin-based son of a Holocaust survivor, and his wife, Catherine Punch, are today launching a new organisation, Holocaust Awareness Ireland, which aims to connect the Holocaust to contemporary culture and the politics of our times.
The art dealer and gallery owner is too painfully aware where unchecked populism can lead. His mother, Monika, was saved when she was thrown from a moving train bound for a concentration camp. Her father, aunt and young cousin, however, were murdered by the Gestapo, while her husband’s uncle and grandparents, along with 20 great aunts and uncles and all their families, were murdered in Treblinka.
Now, she warns that life appears to be coming full circle as she watches the rise of the familiar politics of fear, division and exclusion.
Her son says:
He is right. While the Holocaust might seem remote to Irish people, it is not. In the coming months, Holocaust Awareness Ireland will invite a wide range of people to comment on contemporary culture through the lens of the Holocaust, asking why it’s relevant here — and everywhere — and why we must keep talking about it.
Remembering the Holocaust reminds us of what can happen when we stand by and allow the creeping erosion of democracy. However, there is hope too, something that comes through loud and clear in the precious testimonies of the survivors who share their stories with us.
Drawing on Kierkegaard’s words, Oliver Sears says: “To understand life, you need to look backwards; but to live life, you need to look forwards.”
Today is a good day to think about how we might do that.