It was rather sad to see that for some people Holocaust Memorial Day was all about political point scoring. Tim Stanley has dealt with this matter with his usual insight, and you can read what he has to say here. Again, there was the case of the Lib Dem MP, whose words, and their timing in particular, are most unfortunate.
The Memorial Day fell yesterday, which is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. That one place name still has a remarkable resonance. I imagine everyone has heard of Auschwitz, and if they claim not to have done so, I would very much like to know why that were the case.
The concept of memory is an extremely important one for all human beings. According to my online concordance provided on the Vatican’s website, the word ‘remember’ occurs 169 times in the Bible; ‘remembered’, 50 times; ‘remembering’, 8 times; ‘remembers’, 13 times, and ‘remembrance’, 18 times. The word ‘memorial’ occurs 30 times, and ‘memory’ 39 times; ‘memories’ is used twice and ‘memorials’ thrice.
Time and again the people of the Old Testament are told to remember what God did for them in liberating them from Egypt; and we, the people of the New Testament, are told to carry out the memorial of Christ our Saviour. So, you get the picture: Holocaust Memorial Day is something that should come as second nature to us, as the act of rememberance is hardwired into our religious DNA.
And not only our religious DNA; it is part of human nature. Non-religious people also keep anniversaries and attend memorials.
But why remember? One remembers because it is dangerous to forget. To forget may be to risk the making the same mistakes once more and allowing the same catastrophe to happen again. But there is more to it than just that, important as that is. To remember the Holocaust is an act that helps constitute our identity. We did not live through it, most of us; if we had lived at that time, we might have been bystanders, or even perpetrators; but we who live now live in its shadow, and its shadow makes us who we are – or rather should do. We need to remember so that we can become the people we ought to be: the people who live in a post-Auschwitz world. Because the fact of Auschwitz changes everything.
The horror of Auschwitz establishes beyond any doubt, to my mind, that humankind is flawed. It blows to pieces the myth of the Noble Savage told us by Rousseau: human beings left to their own devices, contrary to what he said, will commit the most awful atrocities. Humanity is not intrinsically noble; it is not society that has deformed us. We are deformed in our very nature. The Holocaust illustrates that civilisation is only skin deep; it lays humanity bare, exposing humanity’s lack of humanity.
So, to return to my original point, Holocaust Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for the victims, of course, but not really a day for thinking about Israel and the Palestinians, for it transcends all that. Rather it is a day for contemplating the radical insufficiency of human nature. This is how we are, and this is the horror to which we can sink. And the Holocaust, though unique in scale and in its depravity, is hinted at in inhuman behaviour all around us today: in the cruelty of human being to human being, in the ruthless lack of pity, in the hardening of the human heart to love and compassion.
The remembering the Old Testament asks us to do, is the remembering of God’s goodness to us. On Holocaust Memorial Day we need to remember our past wickedness to each other, and what we are capable of, still.
But after you have looked at human depravity, where will you next look? Will you shrug and move on? Will you say that there is no help for it? Will you claim that such depravity is not typical, or the product of certain historical circumstances alone? Or will you, having looked at what human beings are capable of, then look towards God, with a fervent prayer that he will not leave us in our sins?