My favourite book of the last year was Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky. The two sections in the book were originally planned as the first of six interconnected stories based around the fall of France in 1940 during the Second World War and its consequences.
Nemirovsky never finished them – a French Jew, she was arrested, deported and died in Auschwitz. The books were only recently discovered and published to great and justified critical acclaim.
The Holocaust casts a long shadow even into the 21st century. I was recently in Vienna where I saw Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial in the Judenplatz. Inscribed on it was the figure of 65,000 – the number of Austrian Jews who perished. In every occupied country of Europe it was the same story.
Some of the most shocking and memorable art of the past 60 years has tried to come to terms with this terrible episode in human history. The novels of Primo Levi or Vassily Grossman, and films such as Au Revoir Les Enfants or Schindler’s List, show how these personal tragedies intertwined with political tragedy.
Another modern tragedy is the way in which the state of Israel, seen as a refuge for Jews worldwide after the Second World War, has become a major oppressor of Palestinians and of Arabs living within its borders. It is also the most dangerous place in the world for Jews to live.
But, while we should understand why this process came about, we should never allow opposition to Israel’s policies to prevent us from seeing the significance of the Holocaust. The current debate around Holocaust Memorial Day is a case in point. The fact that the day is promoted by some who want to deny the most basic rights to the Palestinians leads some people, especially inside the Muslim communities, to refuse to mark the day. They say that all genocides and racist atrocities should be commemorated on this day, not just the Holocaust.
It is true that there have been many other terrible events which do not receive the same attention. No doubt this is partly due to an ignorance which itself comes from a Eurocentric view of the world. There may be good reasons to campaign for such events to be remembered in their own right.
But the Holocaust is unique. Six million perished in the space of a few years, sent to their deaths by a Nazi regime which had the full backing of the big corporations. The state of the art technology and the industrial production methods of modern capitalism were used to bring about an episode of the worst barbarism, with the lethal gas manufactured by big companies, and Europe’s railway system used as the fast track to extermination.
The Nazis set out to systematically destroy all opposition, which is why their first victims were trade unionists, communists and socialists. The Jews were the scapegoats of all Europe.
To treat the Holocaust as one of a number of terrible wrongs is to downgrade it. All those who oppose racism and fascism – which includes the vast majority of the Muslim communities – should remember it on that day. We should all do everything in our power to prevent anything like it ever happening again.
That doesn’t mean we should give up our criticism of Israel or of its ideology, Zionism. We should continue to campaign for justice for the Palestinians, for the right of return, and for a democratic secular state where those of all religions and none can live peacefully.
There are other parallels to draw. Enlightenment Europe, whose “civilised” values Muslims are encouraged to integrate into by sanctimonious government ministers, produced much scientific, intellectual and social advance. It also produced two world wars and the Holocaust.
If there were any repeat of such a catastrophe in Europe today, the Jews, socialists, trade unionists, gays and gypsies would once again be under threat of the concentration camps. But the Muslims of Europe, scapegoated for the consequences of war and occupation, would also suffer in the way that the Jews did in the 1930s and 1940s.
So let’s remember the Holocaust not just on its special day, but by building opposition to Islamophobia – the main form of racism in Europe today.
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