In her own words, Holocaust Memorial Day has “particular resonance” for Bristol resident Marian Liebmann.
“My parents were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and most of their relations died in the Holocaust,” she says.
Marian’s parents fled Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Their experiences had a lasting impact on her, and this year, she is chairing the Bristol Holocaust Memorial Day steering group. They organise the city’s commemorations for the day, which takes place on 27 January.
She explained how her parents escaped.
Bristol’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations
On 27 January 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau – the Nazi concentration camp – was liberated by Soviet soldiers. In the UK, Holocaust Memorial Day, or HMD, has been honoured on this date every year since 2001.
In previous years, the Bristol commemorations have included speeches from Holocaust survivors and their relatives, workshops on issues such as discrimination, and group discussions on topics like immigration. But 72 years on, why is HMD still important?
Marian believes there are still lessons to be learnt from the Holocaust. Prejudice and discrimination persist today, and she knows only too well how dangerous this can be.
“Things start small, with a few insults here and there, and then they get more systematic, where people are excluded and not allowed to do things, as Jews weren’t in Nazi Germany,” she says. “They were turfed out of their jobs and then people had to start wearing yellow stars so they were identifiable.”
Across the UK, 2015 saw the highest levels of hate crime against Jews ever recorded. In Bristol, levels of hate crime have remained fairly constant, but anti-Semitic crimes doubled between the period of 2013/2014 and 2014/2015.
HMD offers the chance to look at ways to tackle this. Bristol’s commemorations in January will include a workshop on hate crime, to get people thinking beyond atrocities such as the Holocaust, and about how we can all tackle prejudice in our everyday lives; from speaking out against racism, to welcoming to people from all backgrounds.
“I think people at the moment feel very powerless with all the things that have happened, with Brexit and Trump,” Marian says. “We want people to think, ‘what can we personally can do?’”
Holocaust Memorial Day also remembers the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. However, some think it should go further.
“If you don’t know the history, how can you be aware, and make sure that you’re trying to head in the right direction?”
In April 2016, the annual conference of the National Union of Students heard a debate on whether the NUS should help organise commemorative events to mark the occasion.
Darta Kaleja, of the University of Chester, argued that the focus of HMD is too narrow, and that the day should commemorate all victims of persecution; not only those who suffered during the named genocides.
“I think instead of commemorating just one mass genocide, I think it’s important to have a day to commemorate all the mass atrocities,” she said. “It suggests that some lives are more important than others.”
In Bristol, the steering group work hard to ensure the commemorations are as inclusive as possible. Valerie Russell Emmott chaired the group for five years. She says that the overarching message of the day is the importance of fighting persecution; a message which is relevant to everyone.
Valerie has worked with Jewish communities in both the UK and Brussels, tackling anti-Semitism. “The whole theme of HMD, whichever city in the country you go to, is about education, is about prevention,” she says.
The day is an opportunity to talk about the difficulties faced by immigrants and refugees living in Bristol today. They share some of the experiences of Holocaust survivors: “the experience of arrival, the experience of settling, the experience of welcome or not being welcome, and finding your feet in a new culture,” Valerie says.
She adds: “We also had a Holocaust survivor come and speak at City Academy, our highest refugee population secondary school in the city. It was a remarkable occasion to have children meeting someone from a very different culture and faith background, but who had a common experience of fleeing and survival.”
Marian, who now works in restorative justice, agrees that engaging the wider community is a good way to ensure we continue to learn from the Holocaust. HMD provides the opportunity to educate people about the steps that can lead to persecution. “If you don’t know the history,” she says, “how can you be aware, and make sure that you’re trying to head in the right direction?”
Valerie says acceptance and support between communities is vital for Bristol. “We’re going into a period as a city of having to find £90 million of cuts, and austerity never helps groups to get along,” she says. “It tends to polarise people. We’re at an economic moment in the city where we do need to be talking about working together.”
January’s civic commemoration is a way to do just that: showcase how Bristol is working together. The event will be held at City Hall, College Green, between 13:30 and 16:30 on 27 January 2017. “We’ve invited stallholders from all the different refugee organisations,” Marian says. “It’s an opportunity for people to see what is actually going on in Bristol.”
It is free to attend, and everyone is welcome. “We hope everybody will come,” Marian says. “The more people we can get, the better.”
You can track the hashtag at #BristolHMD
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