Friday the 27th of January marks Holocaust Memorial Day 2023, a day where we reflect on the atrocities of the Holocaust. This year, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust have picked Ordinary People as the theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day. This theme is crucial to the memory of the worst genocide in human history. One of the problems with remembering the Holocaust is the sheer scale of the murders can overwhelm us, and we lose sight of the fact that those murdered were simply ordinary people, who lived ordinary lives like you and me. They went to school, played games with their mates, had dinner with their families. The grim scale of the genocide, with over 6 million Jews murdered, obscures this fact from us. Those lost become part of a horrible statistic which reminds us of humanity at its worst. Without a reason, we remember them as a number, rather than as a person.
I am perhaps fortunate, perhaps unfortunate, to have a reason, as the discrimination and persecution of Jews living in the Third Reich affected my family. My great grandmother, Hedda Friedlander, was German and Jewish. She fled Germany following Hitler’s rise to power. Some of her brothers and sisters were lucky too and escaped, some to the USA and others to Portugal. One, a man called Niklaus Friedlander, fled to Australia where he would later join the Australian army as a mechanic and help in the fight against the Nazis. However, not all of my relatives escaped. My great-great-Aunt, Lina Friedlander, and her husband Richard Kannengrisser did not and were subjected to the discrimination, persecution, and horrors of the Holocaust. They were gassed in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in modern-day Poland. This personal connection to the Holocaust helps me to remember that each and everyone of the 6 million killed was an ordinary person. But this theme of ordinary people also applies to the other side. It was the sometimes support, sometimes indifference of those who witnessed the killings taking place which is equally important to the memory of the Holocaust.
This Holocaust Memorial Day, I ask you to remember the role of ordinary people, as both victim and perpetrator. I ask you to remember the role that ordinary people, like you and I, play in averting suffering and how it cannot be overstated; we, as ordinary people, all have choices. We can choose to stand up to discrimination. We can choose to challenge stereotypes, be they anti-Semitic, as in the case of the Holocaust, or sexist, racist or homophobic. We can choose to support those who are abused and call out those who abuse them. We can choose to do the right thing. And if we all collectively choose to do the right thing, then suffering caused by discrimination will be confined to the past.