As United Nations Holocaust Memorial Day approaches later this month it is an occasion to pause and reflect not only on the terrible events which will forever scar our history but also how those events continue to give meaning to the world in which we live today.
The Holocaust was, without doubt, one of the greatest crimes, if not the greatest crime, in history – the deliberate and systematic murder of six million Jews, together with hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti, in purpose-built death factories and by mass shooting – a crime unprecedented in the long and barbarous history of the world. Approximately two thirds of all Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe were brutally murdered, solely because they were Jewish.
The aftermath of the Holocaust is still being felt around the world today in political debates on intervention in countries like Iraq and Syria, in former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow over a million refugees into her country, and in the UN’s ongoing struggle to find a balance between national sovereignty and individual human rights. In the Western world the reverberations of this singular event are seen in the rise of post-war philosophical systems like post-modernism, where the realities of the past are undermined by a civilizational collapse in the heart of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century. The dystopian nihilism of Nobel prize-winning writers like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, amongst many others, can only be understood in the context in which they wrote – struggling to make sense of a world which has lost its bearings, where even language no longer has validity or meaning. One needs to know about the Holocaust precisely to understand how the world has come to be what it is. The dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945 ushered in a new age but the gates to this era of uncertainty were opened by the Allies some months earlier when they liberated the camps in Europe, revealing the barbarism to which a country of High Culture had sunk.
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights and its convention against the Crime of Genocide (both in December 1948) arose directly out of the Holocaust; much modern international criminal law was determined at the Nuremberg Trials and contemporary institutions like the International Criminal Court in The Hague were founded also in the hope that the Holocaust never be repeated.
The study of the Holocaust – or at least an awareness of the singularity of this event and its implications – should be at the heart of any school curriculum in history or liberal studies and should be taught also in general education courses in universities. Understanding how the Holocaust was possible further enhances also our appreciation of other atrocities and genocides, whether in Armenia in 1915, in Nanjing in 1937, Cambodia in 1975 – 1979, Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1996, Syria over the past few years and so many other places, not least Myanmar today.
Courses are being taught at the University of Hong Kong, in its School of European Studies, and also at the same school at the Baptist University of Hong Kong, as well as at the University of Macau. A number of international schools include a unit on the Holocaust in their history curriculum and in some schools this is also used, to remarkable effect, in art classes, literature lessons and liberal studies.
It was with the aim of raising awareness of the Holocaust and other genocides that the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre was established in 2011. Our Centre seeks to introduce school pupils, university students and the general public from all sectors of Hong Kong, Macao, and the Chinese Mainland and elsewhere in Asia to this hugely important event, not only to highlight the suffering and persecution of the Jews in Europe but also the aftermath, some of which we have outlined above, if all too briefly, and, crucially, the very real dangers of all forms of discrimination – racial, gender, sexual, religious etc. Discrimination is at the heart of all that is wrong with our society – intolerance of others because of their skin colour, religious beliefs, social status – and the Holocaust is the prime example of what can happen when this becomes acceptable and, in the case of Nazi Germany and its allies, legal.
The implications for Holocaust education lie far beyond the history classroom: in pre-war Nazi Germany thousands of non-Jewish Germans were murdered in gas chambers, by doctors, because they were mentally or physically handicapped. During the invasion of the Soviet Union over one-and-half-million Jews were shot by the SS assisted by “ordinary men”, off-duty policemen from cities like Hamburg and Cologne; university professors and judges willingly co-operated with the Nazis to create an Aryan Germany free of Jews, Gypsies, black people and other undesirables. At Wannsee, in January 1942, where the Final Solution to the Jewish Question was agreed upon, over half of those present were holders of PhD degrees from top German universities and one was a medical doctor. Reinhard Heydrich, an arch monster, was a concert-standard violinist and Hans Frank, the Butcher of Poland, was also a talented musician. The Holocaust teaches us, if it teaches us anything, that neither education nor cultural attainment inures us against our baser instincts. All human achievement was compromised during those terrible years.
So many events in recent years, here in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, in North America must make all of us more sensitive to how we use language; it is totally unacceptable for a protestor or anyone else to equate their situation – whether refusing to wear a mask during this ongoing Covid crisis or screaming against vaccination, or objecting to police violence or a country whose politics one finds objectionable with that of the Jews in Nazi Germany. No one has the right to wear a yellow star to draw attention and claim similarity with what Jews suffered in Europe in middle of the twentieth century. To do so is an obscenity. Not every situation where one group feels put upon is like the Holocaust and it is facile to hurl accusations of fascism at those with whom one might disagree.
Today in many European countries as well as North America and Australia it is common practice to include an element of Holocaust education in the training of law-enforcement personnel, with visits to Holocaust museums and meeting Holocaust survivors. The Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre is also committed to assisting any organisation, whether private or public, wanting to know more about the Holocaust and/or other genocides and atrocities, not least Nanjing and Unit 731, Cambodia, Rwanda etc. We have a full-time Director of Education and a Board of Directors all of whom are engaged in promoting awareness of the Holocaust and Genocide and we would be happy to welcome you to our Resource Centre or to visit your school or organisation. We run numerous activities, bring survivors to Hong Kong and seek to engage with the wider community on these important issues. We can be contacted via our website.
The Holocaust was a crime against the Jews but it was also a crime against the very idea of humanity, something all of us, from wherever in the world we come, must safeguard and treasure. The Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre was established in order both to educate and raise awareness in the Far East of this human tragedy and, and, at the same time, try to show how it impacts not only on Jews, not only on the West but on all humanity, everywhere.