Perhaps you might think of a particular mug or tea set, or a much-loved photo on the bookcase. You may think of the smell of your favourite soup. Maybe it’s the sight of your pet, asleep in a habitual spot. What do you think of when asked what ‘home’ represents to you? For the vast majority of us, it is where we feel safe, loved and comfortable.
Blanche Benedick remembers: “My mother always seemed to be in the kitchen. I remember coming home from school and being greeted by delicious cooking smells.”
For Blanche, and for so many other Jews in the 1930s, however, ‘home’ became unsafe as soon as the Nazis came to power. In the lead-up to the Holocaust, Nazis deliberately undermined the notion of ‘secure home’ by imposing curfews on Jews, and seizing certain domestic possessions such as radios and cameras. And a few months before World War Two broke out, Jewish people in Nazi Germany were told that it was now legal for their homes to be taken from them at any time.
As the war developed, and Nazi control spread across Europe, Jewish people were forced from their homes into ghettos in cities across Europe. Families had to live in overcrowded, dirty and unsanitary conditions; disease and starvation were rife.
The Holocaust has been described as ‘a threat to civilisation’. Yet despite its horrors, genocides have taken place since. Subsequent acts of genocide, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, saw communities forced from their homes: into Killing Fields, into bushes and hiding places, into concentration camps and refugee camps.
Not only were people targeted for their faith or ethnicity, but their homes were targeted too. Many of those who tried to return from concentration camps across Europe after the Holocaust found their houses had been looted, sold, given away or physically destroyed, and the local communities unwilling or unable to help them reclaim their homes. Similarly, when survivors of the genocide in Bosnia returned to their homes, many found that they had been taken over by members of the communities involved in killing their loved ones.
“I was numb when I saw there was nothing left… Someone had even planted corn on my land and they were harvesting it”, says Besima, survivor of the genocide in Bosnia.
The continuing trauma of genocide leaves people trying to adapt to a new life alongside some of those responsible for destroying their old one. Finding or building a new home can take a long time in communities still recovering from genocide. Having no permanent home can create further trauma for those who survive.
For many people, it is family and loved ones who are essential to feeling ‘at home.’ Having lost friends and family during genocide, those who survived the Holocaust, Nazi persecution or other genocides have had to face the trauma of making a home without those who had been murdered.
“I missed my brothers and sisters, always, to this very day. When the holidays came and people celebrated, or the families sat together, that was when this inner thing, this nervous strain came. That was very hard.” – Otto Rosenberg, Sinti survivor of Nazi persecution.
After persecution, ‘home’ can become a country offering a place of safety and belonging. The continuing refugee crisis highlights that there are millions of people across the world who are still seeking a safe place to call home. The ongoing Genocide in Darfur highlights that acts of persecution, violence and genocide continue to force millions of people from their homes today.
“Britain is now my second home. It is good to have a new life, but it was really tough to have no contact with my family for so long.” – Abdul Aziz Mustafa, survivor of the Genocide in Darfur.
We can all play a part in helping create new homes for those who come to Britain today to escape genocide. On Holocaust Memorial Day this 27 January, please take some time to reflect on those who have been ‘torn from home’ during the Holocaust or in subsequent genocides, and do what you can to support those trying to rebuild new safe homes today.