Holocaust Memorial Day remains a warning to the world over anti-Semitism: Andrew Vine

ONE of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had was accompanying a group of school students on a visit to Auschwitz.

Columnist Andrew Vine remains haunted by a visit to Auschwitz.

On a bitterly cold day, we stood alongside the railway tracks that brought innocent people to their murders and wept over the exhibits of hair shorn from their heads, the pairs of spectacles taken from them and the suitcases that bore their names.

It was utterly devastating.

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With each minute that passed the adults and teenagers that made up the group found less and less to say to each other. In that nightmarish place of evil, none of us could find words. Tears were all we had.

Holocaust Memorial Day is due to be marked this week.

For all of us who toured Auschwitz, the memories will seem especially vivid tomorrow, on Holocaust Memorial Day, when the world pauses to remember the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis.

The schools group I joined was one of those which visit concentration camp sites thanks to the Holocaust Educational Trust, which is, for me, one of the most important initiatives to help the young understand history.

By teaching them what happened in the heart of Europe less than a lifetime’s span ago, and by giving them the chance to experience the places where this abomination took place, the trust, a charity, does a magnificent job.

And not just magnificent. Vital, too. For if anybody doubts the need to keep awareness of what happened alive, and remain ever-vigilant about where antisemitism can lead, they are being dangerously complacent.

Jeremy Corbyn's mishandling of anti-Semitism allegations did lasting damage to Labour.

For proof of that, they need only to log on to any news website and call up the images of the mob which stormed the United States Capitol earlier this month. Look carefully, and you will soon see people wearing clothes emblazoned with neo-Nazi slogans and symbols, some of which make vile references to Auschwitz.

Hardly surprising. According to the FBI, 62 per cent of religion-based hate crimes recorded in America are targeted towards the Jews that make up only two per cent of the population.

Newly-inaugurated president Joe Biden’s call for a new era of tolerance in the country comes not a moment too soon.

Or here in Britain, it’s worth noting the results of a survey carried out by the Campaign Against Antisemitism and King’s College, London, which found that 44 per cent of Jews avoid visible displays of Judaism, such as the kippa or Star of David, because they fear it could make them a target.

Last year, the Community Security Trust, which monitors antisemitism, said 2019 saw the highest number of hate incidents it had ever recorded – the fourth year-on-year increase. If the total fell during 2020, it was lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions which were responsible, not a diminished threat towards Jewish people.

This grim picture is reflected around Europe. The EU is to unveil a plan to combat antisemitic hate crime that is on the rise and has led to the murders of Jews in France, Belgium and Denmark. Individual states, among them Austria, are introducing increased protection for synagogues.

We can all see the evidence of this threat with our own eyes. Of all the places of worship within a couple of miles of my home – churches, mosques and a Sikh temple among them – only the synagogues require a security presence when services are held. How sad, and shameful, it is that people should feel the need for protection when they go to worship.

But perhaps also how unsurprising when a cursory search of the internet soon turns up a cesspit of antisemitic hatred.

And let’s not forget it’s only months since the excoriating Equality and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism in the Labour Party found that it had been allowed to fester under former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

It is a lasting stain on the reputation of a great political party that such hatred went unchallenged, despite protests and even resignations by its own MPs.

All of which adds up to a pressing need for the widest possible observance of Holocaust Memorial Day.

We need to remember the victims and survivors of the Holocaust and other more recent genocides, but this day of commemorations is not just about the past. It is about the present and future as well.

The numbers of those who can bear living witness to what happened at Auschwitz and the rest of the camps whose names became infamous dwindle with each passing year.

Every one of them who I’ve had the privilege of talking to over many years shared a single nagging fear – that once they were gone, collective memory would fade, and those who deny the Holocaust would gain greater influence. That must not be allowed to happen.

Their warnings from history are a warning for our own times.

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