Studies show that, on average, an individual consumes 100,000 words per day. That's 36.5 million words in a year. It's hardly surprising that a lot of the words we hear and experience have little effect on us. Certain words may be momentarily significant, but very few have a long-lasting impact on the way in which we live our lives. Some words, or collections of words, however, linger in our thoughts for decades. They loiter in our mind, popping up from time to time, taking pride in the fact that they may have molded us an individual and indefinitely shaped our character.
328,500,000 words ago (9 years ago, for the mathematically challenged amongst you), a collection of words truly changed my worldview. I was researching my family history for a school project and decided to ask my grandmother for help. Grandma Marlene, who very rarely speaks about herself or her family's history, decided to open up to me about her past. I discovered that she was born into a largely secular, highly assimilated German Jewish family in 1928. Her hobbies included skiing, socialising and reading and she would describe her early childhood as being "happy", "traditional" and "privileged." Yet, this somewhat conventional upbringing was soon to come to an end. Hitler's rise to power in 1930s Germany meant that ethnically Jewish individuals, regardless of their secularity, were soon to face brutal persecution under the Nazis. As persecution escalated, my grandmother was sent to Auschwitz - a place synonymous with inhumanity and barbaric brutality, and her life was to change forever.
After an in-depth conversation about the horrors of her past, my grandmother uttered the unforgettable words, "It's important to remember the past, but not unless it changes the future". These are the words which have stuck with me for 9 solid years and I truly believe have changed my attitude to understanding history. Every year on Holocaust Memorial Day, these words echo in my mind. As I skim through my social media pages and see an abundance of "NEVER FORGET" Facebook statuses and tweets reminding everybody of the sheer scale and tragedy of the genocide, I often fear that these may be somewhat redundant. Showing our respect to those who died is, of course, our moral obligation and reminding ourselves of the extent of the atrocity is of the utmost historical significance. What we need to remember, however, is that memory, as a lone concept, is somewhat useless unless it acts as a fuel for change.
Yes, the Holocaust may have ended in 1945. Persecution, however, did not. Whilst the memory of the Holocaust may involve delving into the past, we should not turn a blind eye to the reality of the present. Minorities, in 2014, are still consistently persecuted. In 2014, mainstream European politicians are, like in Nazi Germany, calling for "armed battle against the Jews". In 2014, Romani Gypsy children are still suffering discrimination by being forced to attend segregated Slovakian schools. In 2014, 80% of Commonwealth countries still have laws criminalising homosexuality. Police in Nigeria are reportedly using information obtained through torture to compile lists of names and arrest men suspected of being homosexual. Discrimination is like the Lernean Hydra. Whilst one of its ugliest, most vicious heads was cut off 70 years, new, equally as terrifying heads have continued to grow, in different forms, at a rapid pace since then. It is now our duty to cut down all signs of unjust inequality and burn the stumps of it while we can. Perfecting the art of remembering the past is significant, but, if anything, it should serve to motivate us to look to the present and inspire us to change the future.
This year, I hope that the words of my grandmother do not simply fade away into the obscurity of your 100,00 daily word bank. Be the change you want to see in the world. History must not repeat itself and we can only ensure that happens by acting on our words. So on Holocaust Memorial Day this year, I urge you to do something which makes a difference - be that signing a petition to the homophobic Nigerian government (https://www.allout.org/en/actions/nigeria-no-hate) or boycotting Russian vodka, as suggested by Hugh Laurie, or even volunteering at a centre for the mentally ill.
Whatever you do, remember that the theme of this year's Holocaust Memorial Day is 'journeys'. Journeys are about getting from one place to another. If we truly want to honour the lives of all those who suffered under the Nazi regime, it is our duty to ensure that we, as a society, take note of our starting point and make sure that we move forward to a more promising final destination.