THE BLOG

'Stay Human': The Forgotten Lesson of the Holocaust

26/01/2015 12:00 GMT | Updated 26/03/2015 09:59 GMT

The millions of Holocaust victims will be remembered on Tuesday as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Rather than turning this occasion into yet another gory battlefield of ideologies, the historical anguish should prompt us to work against the systems of collective hatred - beyond religious, ethnic and racial boundaries.

One of the memorable photographs documenting last year's protests against police violence in Ferguson feature a silver-haired woman in a black 'Stay Human' T-shirt arrested by two police officers. A woman on the picture is Hedy Epstein, a 90-year old Holocaust survivor and a passionate human rights activist. Born to a Jewish family in Nazi Germany, Epstein experienced the Holocaust in its vilest form. When still a teenager, her family were captured and executed in Auschwitz-Birkenau, thus sharing destinies with as many as 5 to 20 millions Jewish and other victims of Nazi concentration camps.

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Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein arrested in Ferguson

Heavily influenced by discrimination, grief and sorrow, orphaned Epstein has been ever since avidly campaigning for social justice and human rights, from affordable housing to pro-choice movement to - especially - freedom for the Palestinian people. She has become an embodiment of what should be the central lesson of the Holocaust: combating systematic discrimination and collective hatred. As shown by Epstein, these battles should not and cannot be limited to one specific religion or an ethnic group. Rather, their success depends upon a shared effort.

The importance of interfaith empathy in combating fascism is not a novel idea, with the Holocaust itself offering countless inspiring examples, especially of Jewish-Muslim cooperation. Numerous of them are set in the ethnically and religiously diverse Balkans. Muslim Albania, for example, offered exile to Jews who fled Nazi persecution and was hence the only country in Europe where the Jewish population increased during the WWII. Sarajevo Hagaddah, one of the most important Hebrew manuscripts in the world, was safeguarded by a Muslim during the war period, whilst numerous Muslim individuals across the Balkans sheltered Jews in their homes and offered them protection on the streets.

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Muslim woman covers her neighbour's yellow star with the veil in Sarajevo in 1941

But a collective human memory is often too short and selective to remember those significant episodes. Only fifty years from the described events, war sirens echoed across the Balkans once again, briefly also in my native Slovenia. "We fought the Nazi occupier together. Will you now do to our children what they did to us?" I remember my granddad shouting in the middle of the garden when first military planes started littering the sky above ex-Yugoslavia. Similarly to Esptein, his dad too was taken to Dachau when he was just a young boy.

Whilst my country and my family were spared my grandparents' destiny, people from other former Yugoslavian republics could not claim the same. Ancestors of Muslim and Christian prisoners who had shared misery and rare pieces of bread with my grandparents in Nazi concentration camps 50 years earlier now found themselves in concentrations camps again, this time on different sides of the wire. The genocide at Srebrenica in 1995 alone resulted in the killing of more than 8000 Bosnian Muslims, while ten thousands of people were executed, raped, tortured, burnt and massacred under the banner of ethnic cleansing.

"Never again," were exclaiming politicians and the media following the Srebrenica massacres, just like they had done five decades earlier. But the same things have been happening - again and again. Genocides have been occurring unceasingly: from Sudan to Burma ethnic minorities are being systematically displaced and killed. Even more prevalently, people around the world - with the UK not being an exception - are regularly subjected to structural violence on the basis of the same factors that fuelled the Holocaust - religion, ethnicity, nationality and race.

On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, we should put aside the clashes of various religious and political entities that are deploying the Nazi genocide for justifying, confronting, imposing and refusing different political agendas. Instead, we should remember the importance and power of mutual respect and empathy, be it in the context of the Holocaust, Srebrenica or Ferguson. The continuous cycles of violence can only ever be ceased if we learn from the historical lessons and embrace the mantra proposed by Epstein's T-shirt and - stay human.