How can life go on? On Holocaust Memorial Day Suffolk remembers those killed in genocides

The gates at Auschwitz. Picture: HMD Trust

The gates at Auschwitz. Picture: HMD Trust - Credit: Archant

Today, on Holocaust Memorial Day we look at the importance of remembering not only the wartime victims of concentration campincluding Auschwitz-Birkenau, but also those killed in genocides since.

The railway line that brought trains directly into Auschwitz-Birkenau. Picture: Bill Hunt

The railway line that brought trains directly into Auschwitz-Birkenau. Picture: Bill Hunt - Credit: Archant

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 is 'How can life go on?' Since the Holocaust wreaked by the Nazis in the Second World War there have been other genocides and these too are remembered on this day.

Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who died last year, said: 'For the survivor death is not the problem. Death was an everyday occurrence. We learned to live with Death. The problem is to adjust to life, to living. You must teach us about living.'

How does a person or a nation who has survived the horrors of genocide begin to come to terms with the trauma and their past?

The Holocaust Memorial Trust talks of the emotional and social upheaval of genocide and considers the questions of how life can go on:

A wall of family photos at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Picture: Yakir Zur

A wall of family photos at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Picture: Yakir Zur - Credit: Photo by Yakir Zur


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'Times of genocide are always times of acute social upheaval; tens of thousands, sometimes millions, of people are forced from or flee their homes.' It is not only how but where life can go on.

Can there be such a thing as justice after genocide?

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Genocide destroys and divides communities. How can communities rebuild when whole sections are missing or when survivors and perpetrators live side-by-side?

Is true reconciliation and forgiveness possible or even desirable?

Barbed wire fences surround detention buildings at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland

Barbed wire fences surround detention buildings at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland. Picture: AP Photo/Alik Keplicz - Credit: AP

Why is remembering important to helping life go on? How do we remember when there is nobody left to tell the story?

The theme calls upon everybody to fight denial and trivialisation.

Genocide is not a matter of history. Antisemitism and other forms of hate continue today. The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day aims to help people to consider individual, organisational, community and governmental responsibilities for protecting the rights of marginalised communities. And also to consider what each of us can do to help those who have survived genocide, as well as all those from persecuted groups.

Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, said that on this day 'we honour the survivors of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides and challenge ourselves to learn important lessons from their experiences in order to create a safer, better future.'

The chimneys at Auschwitz

The chimneys at Auschwitz

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A teenage memory

Sam Clarke, 23, formerly of Suffolk visited Auschwitz March 2nd 2010, aged 16.

A group of children at Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp just after liberation in January 1945. Mor

A group of children at Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp just after liberation in January 1945. More than 15 million people are thought to have been killed by the Nazis in this camp. - Credit: AP

The prospect of visiting Auschwitz was one that naturally created some sense of apprehension, as there is very little way of knowing how you are going to react to the experience of being there.

I recall that there was a lot of discussion about how we may find it, and how certain other people had reacted, so upon arrival I found I was very conscious of my own feelings. The sheer size of the main death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was the most immediately striking thing. However, the thing that affected me the most, and which I still clearly recall, was that, when standing in the middle of the camp and turning back to face the town, a church is visible overlooking the site.

I found nothing in the camp to be as unnerving as seeing that church. The proximity of this spiritual place clearly brought home the awfulness of everything that had occurred.

Shoes from inmates at Auschwitz. Picture courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

Shoes from inmates at Auschwitz. Picture courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust - Credit: Archant

Lynne Mortimer on seeing Auschwitz

A few years ago I was invited to join a party of high school students visiting the site of Auschwitz.

Before I travelled, I assessed my attitude towards the Holocaust.

As a reporter, I once interviewed a man who had been one of the British troops that liberated Belsen. He was one of the liberators who had received a tin of photographs from the Shoah Foundation, founded by film director Steven Spielberg in the 1990s. For the liberators it was both an acknowledgment of what they had done and a record of what they had encountered.

The double fence at Auschwitz. Picture courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

The double fence at Auschwitz. Picture courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust - Credit: Archant

After demob, the soldier had lived a quiet life in his home on an East Anglian council estate but, asked to recall the experience of seeing Belsen for the first time, he could not. He spoke eloquently of his journey through the continent after D-Day, the skirmishes, the progress towards the north of Germany. But when his story reached the gates of Belsen, he could go no further.

I knew of the Kindertransport which, in the months before the outbreak of war, brought thousands of children, most of them Jewish, to Britain from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria and Poland. The majority of the children arrived at the port of Harwich and, from there, travelled on to foster homes. As a child, this, and the stories of evacuation – the terrible thought of being separated from my mum and dad, made a profound impression on me as a child.

At each stage of my life, my view was subtly different... until now, when middle-aged with a dodgy knee I was to see its dreadful legacy with my own eyes.

It was a foggy, cold day when the plane from Stansted landed at Krakow, Poland. A fleet of coaches took us from the airport, first along bleak roads bordered by barbed wire fenced forest and then into towns. The visit was arranged by the Holocaust Educational Trust, which aims to educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and convey the important lessons that need to be learned for today, for each successive generation.

Near the village that neighbours Auschwitz, we first visited a Jewish cemetery that pre-dated the existence of the Nazi death camp. Here, before they became the victims of indescribable evil, local people were buried with dignity and respect.

It was a stark contrast to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. In one, people lived in conditions of squalor, slave labour, all dignity stripped away.

In the other, people were killed in a deliberate policy to wipe out Jewish people and also gay people and minority groups. Bodies were burnt, en masse. We were to see the chimneys that rise starkly from an expanse of otherwise featureless ground.

We walked through the gates of Auschwitz with its message, picked out in wrought iron, 'Arbeit Macht Frei' which translates as 'work sets you free'. A lie.

Trains would bring carriage loads of families into the camp. They came with their luggage, their children and even, with hope.

As they left the train they were separated into groups – on one side would be the chance to work and maybe live; on the other, death.

I was now in my 50s, so I know that had I arrived on one of the trains I would have been marked out for death in those gas chambers. In the main, these hell holes had been destroyed as the allies drew closer to the camps but we were taken to one that survives.

In rooms which now house a museum, I saw the gas canisters. I saw the hair, now grey, shaved from the heads of the victims; a pile of countless shoes: workmen's shoes, businessmen's shoes, dancing shoes, children's shoes. All was saved as part of a policy enforced by a pitiless regime.

The aim of the trips to Auschwitz is to tell the story to students so that it is never forgotten. In remembering what happened in the Holocaust, we have the best chance to stop it happening again.

At sunset, it is an eerie place. I did not sense any ghosts but the bleakness of the surroundings settled a chill upon all of us there.

The wife of the camp commandant wrote that her time at Auschwitz was the happiest of her life. We should also remember that there were those who chose not to see.

• A service to remember victims of the Holocaust and other genocides is being held today, Friday January 27, in the Abbey Gardens, Bury St Edmunds, at 10.30am

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