My Warsaw-born mother spent World War Two hidden in a convent. It was the safest place to hide a Jewish baby born two weeks before Hitler marched into Poland.
When she emerged five years later, she was the only remaining member of her once large Jewish family in the city, a city where they’d lived for generations. They had been murdered in the Holocaust. Murdered for being Jewish.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the day we honour the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered by the Nazis, and the millions of other people who were killed alongside them, also for simply being who they were, or for what they believed: gay people, disabled people, Roma (‘gypsies’), Slavs, and political activists who opposed the Nazi regime.
We remember them today because 27 January marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest of the 850 Nazi death camps that stretched across Europe between 1939 and 1945: the camp where members of my family were herded, naked, into gas chambers, locked in, and killed with Zyklon B gas.
I can’t remember when I didn’t know about the Holocaust. The mass murder of Europe’s Jews defines Jewish families like mine. There are holes in our families, in our lives. If my mother hadn’t been hidden in a convent when she was six months old, she too would have been gassed to death, her tiny body then burned in an oven designed for the purpose of incinerating human beings. And I wouldn’t be here either.
So I’m shocked at the growing numbers of millennial and Gen Z adults who don’t know that six million Jews were systematically murdered in the heart of Europe, slaughtered on an industrial scale.
The Final Solution as it was called by the Nazis was designed to exterminate every single Jewish man, woman and child in the world. And being Jewish for the Nazi race-scientists meant having Jewish blood: a Jewish mother or a Jewish father or a sole Jewish grandparent. My mum, for example, had a Jewish mother and a Catholic father.
Unlike the other groups of people, such as Poles and Russians, who were killed because the Nazis thought there were too many of them in the world, Jews were murdered because they were seen as sub-human. No political or economic reasons were cited. The murder of Jews like my great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins was not a means to an end: it was the end in itself. Their crime was existing.
The reason for this hatred was a form of anti-Jewish racism we call antisemitism: hostility towards Jews as Jews.
From the moment Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 the Nazis began a programme of persecution against Jews. They introduced laws against them and took away their rights. Jews weren’t allowed in certain places and were banned from getting certain jobs. In 1937 one of my father’s aunts, a Jewish concert violinst in Berlin, was fired from the music conservatoire where she taught. Under the Nazis, the music of Jewish composers was no longer performed in concerts or allowed on the radio. It was considered anti-German.
After the outbreak of war in 1939, the Nazis stepped up the persecution of Jews. All over Europe, they were herded into over-crowded ghettos. My mother’s family, which had run a pharmacy in the Polish capital, was imprisoned in the largest of them, the Warsaw Ghetto. From there they were deported to Auschwitz.
It’s clear why the Holocaust matters to me, but if you’re not Jewish you might ask what it has to do with you?
The answer to this is that the Holocaust is what happened when hatred for others goes unchecked. Anti-Jewish hate didn’t begin with the Holocaust. There is a long and well documented history of antisemitism in Germany and Europe before the Nazis came to power. What they did was unshackle and activate it. Give people permission to release their pent-up racism and commit heinous acts – many ordinary Germans worked in the death camps.
Equally, there were ordinary people who did extraordinarily kind things in those dark times. Who saved Jewish lives at huge risk to their own – people like the nuns who hid my mother.
“These people were shards of light in those dark days,” says Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) which aims to educate everybody about the Holocaust and its contemporary lessons. “Whether it was issuing false visas to Jews so they avoid transportation to the camps, or giving a glass of milk to an emaciated pregnant woman, these acts, great and small, were demonstrations of humanity, moments of kindness that Holocaust survivors remember and talk about today.”
Some of those survivors rebuilt their shattered lives in Britain, going on to become doctors and nurses, teachers and writers. One of them Polish-born Ben Helfgott became a weightlifter who represented Britain in the Olympics. One of his grandsons was in the same class at primary school as my son, Aaron.
Every year, HET takes hundreds of sixth formers to Auschwitz as part of its Holocaust education programme. The overwhelming majority aren’t Jewish and some of them, says Karen, are Glamour readers. When they return, they become ambassadors for the organisation, sharing their knowledge whilst encouraging others to remember the Holocaust. They also become active in other anti-racist work such as the campaign to raise awareness of China’s persecution of its Uyghur Muslim minority today.
For while the Holocaust was unique in its scope, the dehumanisation of people happens every day. It’s called bullying. It’s called intolerance. It’s called racism. It’s called hate.
And when it comes to Jews, that racism is on the rise again. In 2019, the Community Security Trust, which monitors antisemitism in Britain, recorded 1,805 hate incidents against Britain’s tiny Jewish community of 280,000 or so, the highest number in four consecutive years. Antisemitism didn’t begin before the Holocaust and it didn’t end after it.
But there is a cure for this virus. Education. Education is how we prevent ignorance and hatred. So I implore those Gen Z and millennials who recognise they just don’t know enough about anti-Jewish hate to find out more. If we allow this ignorance to continue for another generation, the crucial lessons of the Holocaust will be lost forever. And we all need to learn them for a better future.