THE BLOG

Don't Stand By to Intolerance, Hatred and Genocide

27/01/2016 16:41 GMT | Updated 26/01/2017 10:12 GMT

'I thought the dead were perhaps luckier than the living; they were no longer forced to endure this hell on earth, to see the cruelty of men.'

The words of Shlomo Venezia, forced by the Nazis to join the hideously named 'special squad', or Sonderkommando, at Auschwitz, and carry out the most gruesome and cruel duties: disrobing victims and leading them directly to the gas chambers.

Shlomo, a Greek-born Italian Jew, was one of the few to survive. Many Sonderkommando were killed by the Nazis in an attempt to hide evidence of their crimes and prevent future testimony.

Yet even in these unimaginable circumstances, there were some remarkable individuals, members of the Sonderkommando who refused to stand by. Against the odds and at enormous risk, Zalman Loewenthal, Zalman Gradowski and Leib Langfus obtained pens and paper and recorded their experiences. Following liberation, these documents, known as the Scrolls of Auschwitz, were found buried, amongst the cremated ashes of burned bodies.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Today is the day to remember and honour these brave men and other heroes who refused to stand by in the face of evil. And not just during the Second World War.

In Rwanda in 1994, it took just 100 days for extremist Hutus to murder nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. After decades of tension, Hutu civilians were told it was their duty to wipe out the Tutsis. Despite its colossal scale this genocide was carried out almost entirely by hand, with machetes and clubs. Tutsi men, women and children were killed in their thousands. Often the killers were people they knew - neighbours, workmates, former friends, sometimes even relatives through marriage.

Appolinaire Kageruka worked as a teacher. When the violence erupted his family and many others hid in a church. They were discovered and killed. Appolinaire only survived because the father of one of his students - a Hutu - provided sanctuary for him in his own home.

Stories like these are inspiring. It is important that we hear about people who assisted and rescued victims of genocide. We need to know there were those who resisted, culturally, spiritually and physically. It provides us with hope.

But we have to understand, also, that there were many who did nothing.

Bystanders enabled the Holocaust and subsequent genocides to take place. They stood by silently - at best afraid to speak out, at worst, indifferent. By tolerating insidious persecution and not challenging propaganda, they allowed hostile cultures to take root.

People like to think the Holocaust was a one-off. But genocide has happened again in Rwanda, in Cambodia and in Bosnia. It is happening today in Darfur, where thousands of people have been murdered and millions have been forced to flee to makeshift refugee camps.

Even in our own communities right now, we see hate crime. People are abused because of their race or ethnicity, their religion, or their sexuality. People witness this abuse. And many do nothing.

In fact according to research released today, a quarter of people in the UK have witnessed at least one hate crime or hate incident based on race or ethnicity in the last year. And more than a fifth have seen an incident based on religion or beliefs.

More than two thirds of those who've witnessed abuse of this kind say they regret not challenging it.

So today the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust asks everyone to not stand by to intolerance, hatred and genocide.

We can all do something.

Report incidents of hostility or hatred based on ethnicity, faith or other characteristic. Watch and share our remarkable film in which Holocaust survivor Susan Pollack tells a unique story of surviving genocide. Contribute to Flames for Humanity's Heroes, a new online gallery honouring those who did not stand by in the past. And mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

Today, over 3,600 activities will be held across the UK, in libraries, galleries, civic centres, schools and colleges, prisons, and cinemas. Tonight, the UK Ceremony, taking place in London this afternoon, will be broadcast by BBC2.

Holocaust Memorial Day helps people learn about bystanders who let the Holocaust and subsequent genocides take place, and about the people who refused to stand by to incremental, legalised discrimination.

Holocaust Memorial Day calls everyone to action, demanding that we Don't Stand By.

For information about Holocaust Memorial Day and events happening across the country, visit the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust's website.

Watch a remarkable film in which Holocaust survivor Susan Pollack tells a unique story of surviving genocide.

See the Flames for Humanity's Heroes gallery and add your own image.

Sign up to the Holocaust Memorial Day Thunderclap.