Are you aware of the Holocaust?

In January my union sent round a bulletin urging everyone to get involved in Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) on 27 January. As part of its ‘anti fascist and anti racist work’ it wanted members to arrange events “to remember the millions of people who lost their lives during the Holocaust and genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur” [i].

But how should one commemorate “the grotesque industrialised genocide of the Holocaust”[ii]? Or any of the other ever-growing numbers of ‘genocides’ that seem to have happened of late?

According to the bulletin, “there is no right or wrong way to mark the day”. But some ‘right’ ways suggested are:

  • Hold a candle lighting ceremony
  • Plant a tree
  • Create a display
  • Organise a special book group
  • Show a short film or invite a speaker to talk about the Holocaust or subsequent genocides [iii]

These are all fantastic ways to commemorate HMD. But there are some slight drawbacks.

For a start, make sure a union health and safety officer is there to advise on any candle lighting activity. (I’m sure they’ll be delighted to help as they have little else to do.) Likewise, planting a tree raises health and safety concerns, and I’m not exactly sure you can plant a tree just wherever and whenever you want — you know what those officious little Hitlers at the council can be like. Creating a display would be a safer option. But clear it with your employer first and make sure they’re also happy to use the Holocaust.

If you organise a book group, remember to make it a ‘special’ book group. To make it ‘special’ you need to choose books that deal with individuals’ experiences — whether real or fictional — rather than anything that might try and explain the Holocaust in historical context, as this will get in the way of the real purpose of the day: examining your our own lives and attitudes.

Maybe inviting a speaker is a better bet. It doesn’t event have to be related to any specific atrocity. Instead you can invite someone to “look at contemporary issues of discrimination and prejudice in the workplace and explore how to challenge these” [iv]. Without trivialising the Holocaust in anyway, this will show you how ignorant (even seemingly innocent) comments can harm others and gradually lead to mass genocide [v].

However, if organising events is a bit too much like hard work, “one of the simplest ways to raise awareness of the day is to point people towards the virtual candle which is available to light on the HMDT homepage”. Yes! If you don’t have time to create a display, or don’t fancy planting a tree (it may be the Holocaust Memorial Day, but you don’t want to put your back out), all you need to do is go to the HMD website and click on the picture of a candle. You will then be told:

Thank you. Your involvement in HMD2011 helps to build a safer, more inclusive society where differences are respected.

This is great. For practically no effort whatsoever you can make the world a better place. But how will anyone know? At least with an event you’re broadcasting what an ethical and morally upstanding individual you are. Maybe for lighting the candle you should at least be sent a ribbon or wristband to wear (as with most other awareness campaigns) to help make others aware of how aware you are of the issue, and make them aware of their ignorance and its possible consequences.

Lastly, if you’re lucky enough to be in my union, you can also attend its one day ‘Holocaust Awareness’ course [vi]. This isn’t actually about the Holocaust mind you; rather, it’s “designed to help reps challenge prejudice and integrate equality principles in the workplace”. In other words the union can train you in the right attitudes and behaviours ready to impart those behaviours to others. This will not only help prevent ignorance or acts of discrimination from turning into genocide, but shows how the worst crime in human history can be used for giving both individuals and struggling organisations a sense of moral purpose.

So go on! Get Holocaust aware. Do a course. Or, next HMD, light a candle to show it. It doesn’t even have to be real.


[i] PCS Briefing BB.06/11

[ii] http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/news_and_events/pcs_comment/index.cfm/id/ED99F2BE-77DD-45BC-90911241AED3CF17

[iii] http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/campaigns/pcs-against-racism-and-fascism/holocaust-memorial-day.cfm

[iv] http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/news_and_events/pcs_comment/index.cfm/id/9BFBEED8-55AA-4D8E-BB92278EC5CC4D88

[v] http://www.hmd.org.uk/about

[vi] PCS Briefing: Y&H/BB/035/10R

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Paul Thomas

About Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas is a civil servant from Leeds, and co-organiser of the public discussion forum the Leeds Salon. He writes regularly for Freedom in a Puritan Age and for Culture Vulture. He has also written for Culture Wars, Spiked-Online, The Independent Blog and The Guardian (Leeds) Blog. Paul is also a longstanding judge and chair in the Institute of Ideas sixth-form Debating Matters competition, and helps organise events in both the UK and India. He has recently joined the team of Made in Leeds TV, working on programme development for community debates.