The Holocaust was a tragically defining episode of the 20th Century, a crisis for European civilisation and a universal catastrophe for humanity. It shook the foundations of modern civilisation and its unprecedented character and horror will always hold universal meaning. Since the end of the Second World War the enormity of the Holocaust has been realised and recognised, and it has helped catalyse international vigilance against genocide, and behaviour and crime which can lead to it.
The Holocaust destroyed the centuries-old Jewish communities and cultures of central and eastern Europe. Some of the largest Jewish populations in the world, including those in Poland, Belarus, western Ukraine, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Greece were wiped out. Previously well-integrated and highly-educated Jewish communities in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria were largely destroyed. Around five million Yiddish speakers were murdered, causing a massive decline in the use of that language. Most of the central and eastern European Jews who survived had no desire to stay in the continent where these atrocities had been committed, and emigrated to Israel or the Americas.
The Jewish refugees and the camp survivors who reached Britain had to adapt to a new country, ravaged by wartime austerity, where people were largely unsympathetic to their stories. Most survivors got on with life, and settled down, choosing not to speak about their horrific experiences. Some completed education while others began their schooling in a new language. They mastered trades and professions, and embarked on productive working lives. They married and raised families. Many maintained their religious affiliations and cherished memories of a culture that was now in ruins.
As time has passed, awareness and education about the Holocaust has improved in the UK and elsewhere. As many survivors have got older, having retired from work and brought up their families, they have begun to share their stories. Many survivors now work tirelessly volunteering in schools and museums to speak about their experiences.
At the UK Commemoration event for HMD 2013, the retiring Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, paid tribute to the Holocaust survivors he has worked with:
‘Because of their indomitable faith in life itself they married […], had children, grandchildren, and refused to let evil have the final word or the final victory. And so, the survivors became my heroes. And then when they built a life for themselves and often after only fifty years they did look back and they told their stories – taught them to all our children and bore witness so that the world would know these things happened not just through films or books, but through the words of those who were there.’
Few comforting stories emerged from the years of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution. One of the most important things we can learn from the survivors of Nazi persecution and mass murder is that for people who emerge from war and genocide, suffering and grief do not end instantly with the declaration of peace.