‘Somebody, after all, had to make a start.’
These words – spoken by a young teacher – echo down the years.
The start she spoke about was distributing home-printed anti-Nazi leaflets in her home town of Munich in the early 1940s. Within a short time, perhaps inevitably, the government’s agents spotted her. Sophie Scholl was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. On 23 February 1943, she was executed. She was 21 years old.
A second story
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a minister in the German Church, went on radio to denounce Nazi policies two days after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. His broadcast was cut off mid-sentence. During the war, he volunteered in the resistance and this work landed him in prison in 1943. Eventually, evidence of his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler was discovered. On 9 April 1945, he was hanged in Flossenberg concentration camp, just a few days before the camp was liberated.
A third story
Raoul Wallenberg was a wealthy Swedish banker working in Budapest. Following the Nazi occupation of Hungary, he led a network, which helped Jewish Hungarians flee persecution by forging passports and providing safe houses. The work was dangerous – Wallenberg slept in a different house every night to escape detection – but effective. His network saved at least 4,500 people – and possibly even twice that number. When Hungary was liberated by the Russian army, Wallenberg vanished – probably into a Russian prison – and was never seen again.
You may well have heard one or all of these stories before. Sophie Scholl’s life has been immortalised on film, Bonhoeffer’s letters to his fiancée published and Wallenberg’s mysterious disappearance aired in many a conspiracy theory. We are all familiar with ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ and ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’, and perhaps ‘The Reader’ and ‘The Pianist.’
If another retelling seems to add little, then surely, you may think, the lessons of the Holocaust have been learnt. What good does it do, we might feel, to focus on an event of such horror that happened well before most people alive today were even born?
There are many possible answers to that, but one thing I know.
It is that, every time I go back to the Holocaust, I find out something new – a fresh perspective – about humanity. For example, when I first began to study the Holocaust, it was believed that there was very little resistance to it. Sophie Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Raoul Wallenberg were glorious exceptions – heroes in a world full of villains and passive bystanders.
This, it now transpires, is a massive over-simplification. Wherever you look in Nazi Germany and the occupied territories in WWII, you find people ‘making a start’ in their own way to resist Nazism and its atrocities. Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum collects the names of such people – known as the Righteous of all Nations. Their current roster contains the names of 26,973 people from 51 countries – ranging from over 6,000 Poles to one Cuban, one Egyptian and one Vietnamese. Twenty-two British people are named – 12 of these identified only in the last 20 years.
Sophie Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Raoul Wallenberg are, in fact, the tip of an iceberg – an iceberg of people, from all countries and walks of life, who helped to sink the Titanic of Nazi terror. They did this, not usually by bold acts of derring-do – manning the barricades, storming the battlements – but by small, deliberate acts of non-compliance or defiance or kindness.
The saying goes that ‘it is enough for evil to triumph that the good do nothing.’ And I ask myself – where would I have stood in their place? Would I have stood on that street corner to protest about a wicked regime? Or made that radio broadcast? Or volunteered for that rescue mission in Budapest?
Remember that, at the time no one was expecting them to do it. Often no one was even noticing. True, History has garlanded them with honours – and labelled them the Righteous. But at the time when they made their decisions, their choices offered them only danger, social ostracism, humiliation, a criminal record, hardship, pain, even death.
Holocaust Memorial Day invites us to answer that question for ourselves – faced with a similar choice, where would I stand? Would I ‘make a start’ or would I be a passive bystander? The question is far from hypothetical. Our times are also blighted by racism and anti-semitism. Indeed, these toxic forces are on the rise again. And genocide didn’t end when the Holocaust was over. Indeed, it haunts some corners of our world as I write.
Why keep returning to the Holocaust? Because we find out something new every time we do so. Something new about humanity, yes. But, just as often, what we find out is something new about ourselves.