Thursday, 5 February 2015

Remembering the Holocaust

Each year National Holocaust Day, held on the 27th January, seeks to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust as well as stressing a continuing commitment to oppose racism and genocide. The date is significant as it is the day  the Red Army liberated Auschwitz Concentration camp in 1945. This year makes it the 75th anniversary and the theme is” keeping the memory alive “

I met a concentration camp survivor purely by chance one day in the early 1980s on the Abbey Hulton Council estate in Stoke. I was working for the Education Department collecting information of Free School meal applicants when I visited a woman who was looking after her grandchildren.  She was born in Vienna and had witnessed the Nazi takeover in 1934. She was from a devoutly Catholic family. Their piety made them fall foul of an uncle who was a senior figure in the Nazi Party. He sent the whole family to a Concentration Camp as their faith made him question their loyalty to the Fuhrer. She showed me the concentration number tattooed on her arm. It ended badly for her uncle who was assassinated by Yugoslavian partisans.

More recently I met a local woman who was living in a small Dutch town during the war whose best friend was  a Jewish girl called Saartje aged 6 who along with other Jewish residents of the town was taken one spring day in 1942 ultimately to die at Auschwitz. The memory of her little friend fate haunts her still.

 2015 as well as being the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is also the 100th anniversary of the genocide of the Armenian people in the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Armenians, a significant Christian minority, in a Muslim country fell under suspicion when Turkey declared war on the Allied powers in World War One especially as one of the enemy powers Russia was sympathetic to the Armenian cause of self determination.  Following a Turkish military defeat when Armenians were accused of acting like a fifth column for the Allies the Turks began a systematic campaign to eliminate the Armenian populations. There were mass executions, and death marches of men, women and children across the Syrian Desert to concentration camps with many dying along the way of exhaustion, exposure and starvation. It was estimated that approaching 1.5 million Armenians died in what historians would later recognise as genocide.

Much of this was quite well documented at the time by Western diplomats, missionaries and others, creating widespread wartime outrage against the Turks in the West.  News even reached Staffordshire where the Tamworth Herald of November 20th 1915 carries a very full account of atrocities perpetrated.  Although its ally, Germany, was silent at the time, in later years documents have surfaced from high ranking German diplomats and military officers expressing horror at what was going on.

But the message of the thoroughness of the Turkish actions and the indifference of the West was not lost on one particular person. To justify his wish to destroy the Polish Nation Hitler remarked in 1939 “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”  And in Turkey today the fate of the Armenians still remains a taboo subject. In fact raising the subject can lead to a criminal charge, but the fate of Armenians still needs to be kept alive in Turkey and the World.