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We Must Not Stand By: Remembering the Holocaust in 2016

19/02/2016 14:53 GMT | Updated 17/02/2017 10:12 GMT

To remember the holocaust is important. Seventy years later, it is as important to remember today as it was then.

Three years ago, I visited Srebrenica, a name which is now synonymous not with a village in Bosnia, but with a massacre. There is a long tradition of Europeans imagining themselves as elevated. The massacre happened in 1995, two days before my third birthday, and to see the bullet holes in the houses was a powerful reminder that we are in danger of forgetting the 1940s.

Two years ago I met Munesh Kapila, the head of the UN development program in South Sudan during the ethnic cleansing of 2003 and 2004. When speaking about what happened in Darfur, I was struck by how recently these events took place, but a few years ago. To me, this demonstrates that the human capability to dehumanise and systematically exterminate has not gone away.

And that is why it is important to remember the holocaust: as a prompt to remain vigilant against the eruption of evil in our everyday lives. The cast of wrongdoers, now and then, were ordinary people.

The holocaust was unique in terms of scale, but the intervening seventy years of atrocities and attempted examinations have proved that the human capacity for destruction remains undiminished.

Today, then, is a day for remembrance. For remembrance of the Jews, the Roma, the queer, and the disabled who were systematically murdered. Every year, the number of survivors of the holocaust decreases. We must ensure that remembrance of the holocaust does not decline alongside them.

The theme of this year's Holocaust Memorial Day is "don't stand by". This is a lesson that is especially relevant today, at a time when racism is on the rise across Europe. Today, Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. The majority of asylum seekers and refugees in the 1930s were Jewish. Today, they are Syrian.

Looking in the newspapers of the 1930s, I was struck by the intolerance on display. British Newspapers talking of "German Jews pouring into this country"; the political discourse at the time mirrored that which we see today. That the Prime Minister is comfortable describing refugees as "a bunch of migrants" on television on Holocaust Memorial Day shows how far our political discourse has slid. We need to remember what happens when we demonise a group of people - be they Jewish, or Syrian. Rabid intolerance of refugees has a long British pedigree, and it is up to all of us to stand up to it.

So the message I will leave you with, is this. "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim". We are a long way from 1937. But then, as now, we must not stand by.

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(Speech given at the 2016 Holocaust Memorial Day at the University of Sussex)