Today (27 January) marks Holocaust Memorial Day across the world. Millions of people inside and outside the Jewish community will meet together to remember the lives lost in the World War Two genocide.
The yearly event, organised by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, sees organised reflection and personal moments for those touched by the loss of six million Jewish lives in gas chambers and concentration camps throughout Germany and Poland in the early 1940s.
While times move on and the world changes, there appears to be a remarkably poignant meaning to the memorial day this year. Social media and highly-publicised rants from celebrities such as Kanye West have shone an unwelcome light on anti-semitism and prejudice in the 21st century.
Campaigners are hoping that the chance to reflect on the lives of those lost in the Holocaust will give a chance for a nuanced look at society and how it deals with prejudice. There is also hope this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme of ‘ordinary people’ will help to educate people about how prejudice and hatred grows.
Tim Robertson, CEO of the Anne Frank Trust UK, spoke to NationalWorld about the importance of this theme, why early education of prejudice is important and why not all hope is lost in the increasingly divided world.
‘Ordinary people’ were at the centre of the Holocaust
Each year, a theme for the memorial day is chosen to help people understand either the events of the Holocaust or the legacy it has left behind. This year, the theme is ‘Ordinary People’.
This idea of ‘ordinary people’ is rooted throughout the horrific events, from those being persecuted, to those doing the persecuting. Mr Robertson explained that the Anne Frank Trust UK, which specialises in educating nine to 15-year-old children about the iconic figure and prejudice over all, leans into this idea when leading events.
He said: “People who were murdered in the Holocaust were ordinary people. The people who perpetrated the Holocaust were ordinary people as well, and those who got seduced into believing this horrible anti semitic narrative.
“We particularly talk about Frank’s story - a family went into hiding for over two years in Amsterdam during the war, because they were Jewish, but there were four Christian helpers who helped them bring food and books and kept them connected to the outside world.
“They couldn’t have been in it without those people, ordinary people who risked their lives to try and protect others. And I think that what we try to teach kids is that you don’t have to be a superhero.”
Mr Robertson explained that the key to never having an event such as the Holocaust happening again is ordinary people calling out modern day anti-semitism and prejudice. He said: “Ordinary people can speak out against prejudice because if you let prejudice build that is what can lead to a genocide.
“Anti semitism did not begin with the Holocaust and it did not end with the Holocaust. It begins from name calling or bullying in the school playground.
“If you let it build and you don’t challenge it, it can become extreme. It can become violent and it can become genocide and that’s why Memorial Day is so important for us.”
‘There are huge forces against us’
The increase in social media use in the past 10 years has seen wild conspiracy theories and sometimes violent rhetoric used against the Jewish population, with some figures sharing these ideas now populating mainstream spaces. Perhaps the most highly-publicised moment of anti-semitic hate being shared was from rapper Kanye West.
West, who now goes by the name of ‘Ye’, spewed vitriolic and hateful speech against the Jewish community in 2022. He shared anti-semitic tropes and conspiracy theories, while also denying the Holocaust ever happened, praising Adolf Hitler and tweeting that he would go “defcon three on Jewish people”.
Speaking on the influence this has on the world, and in particular children, Mr Robertson said: “We know that, especially through social media, we there’s a lot of celebrity culture around so it’s really important that those celebrities who have that kind of profile and that influence, especially on young people, use it responsibly.
“There are huge forces against us. Social media means that messages get sent really quickly, and that it’s often difficult to point out what the real evidence is, what the facts are behind what people’s claims are.”
The influence on not only children but adults too can be seen in basic hate crime statistics. There were 1,919 reported religious hate crimes perpetrated in England and Wales against Jewish people in 2022 - this marked a 49% increase in cases from 2021.
Although West and other prominent figures’ hateful words can have a negative impact, Mr Robertson says that it also means that there has never been so much attention on anti-semitism and prejudice as a result. He explained: “We are making some progress in some ways. We know that some of some things are very tough challenges as well.
“I guess it goes with the theme of ordinary people making the change as well. It’s not just superheroes that make this change. It’s the small things that build up to a better place.”
For more information on the Anne Frank Trust UK and to support the charity’s work, you can visit annefrank.org.