Sunday 27 January was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This international memorial day commemorates the Holocaust tragedy which took place throughout the Second World War.
The Holocaust Remembrance Day pays tribute to the countless number of victims brutally exterminated simply because they were Jews, Slavs, ethnic Poles, Romani people, physically and mentally disabled people, and homosexual men by the Nazi regime and its heinous collaborators. As I said, the numbers are practically incalculable. And even if, some dare to give the following estimations: 6 million Jewish people, 5 million Slavs, 3 million ethnic Poles, 200,000 Romani people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men, only the Lord knows how many other people were killed and, thus, cannot be included in the official victims lists.
But why remembering the holocaust? What importance does it have to go back to the brutality millions of people received at the heartless hands of bands of criminals? In her statement as Youth Advisor to the UK Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission, read at the Memorial Ceremony on the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, 28 January 2015, Charlotte Cohen gives the subsequent answer:
“‘Why should we remember the Holocaust?’ It is a good question, and one that we must discuss openly if we are to engage all people of all ages with Holocaust commemoration. The Holocaust was the murder of 6 million individual Jewish men, women and children. It was therefore an intensely human tragedy. We must not forget that the attempted destruction of Europe’s Jews caused incalculable damage and grief which is still felt today. I recently discovered, completely by chance on holiday in Berlin, that I too had lost a family member in the Holocaust. There is a part of my history, of my ancestry, that until then I was totally disassociated from and unaware of. This led me to realise how voids caused by the eradication of whole communities and families has ramifications worldwide. In remembering the Holocaust, we acknowledge and contemplate this huge loss”.
Cohen’s remarks remind me of the powerful testimonies of the Holocaust survivors. As the website of the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem says, “collecting the testimonies of Holocaust survivors is one of the most important components in the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust and passing it on to future generations”. The stories recounted are too vivid and real to be ignored. Their innate suffering moves the harshest of mountains.
The story of Eugene Black, a slave labourer and camp survivor is one of the many heartbroken testimonies. Eugene was born Jeno Schwartz in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia in 1928. He had a happy family life with 3 sisters and a brother. His mother came from an orthodox Jewish family but his father, who was a master tailor, did not.
In November 1938 the area where Eugene’s family lived was given back to Hungary. On 19th March 1944 German forces occupied Hungary completely. Immediately all Hungarian Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David and within ten days the Jewish population was moved into ghettos. Eugene’s house was within a ghetto area, so his family took other people into their home. On May 14th Eugene was returning home from school. 200 yards from home, he saw a German military lorry outside the family home with his two sisters and father on board. He saw an SS man hit his mother across the face and push her on to the lorry. Eugene wasn’t allowed into the house; he was forced onto the lorry with the rest of his family and other Jewish people from the ghetto.
The lorry was driven to a nearby brickyard, where the Jewish population was being forcibly gathered together. Eugene and his family were ordered into railway cattle trucks and from there transported to Auschwitz Birkenau. Eugene was swiftly separated from his mother and sisters, then also from his father. After being completely shaved and then showered, he was given his number, 55546, and a striped uniform.
Eugene remained at Auschwitz Birkenau for around ten days before being selected for slave labour. He was sent by train to the Little Camp at Buchenwald and then on to Dora Mittelbau in the Harz mountains, where the Nazis used slave labourers to manufacture V1 and V2 rockets underground. Eugene’s job here was to load small trucks with rocks dug out from the tunnels for 12 to 14 hours at a time, without rest and on starvation rations. He became increasingly weak and after five months caught pneumonia. A German doctor saved his life. In mid March 1945 Eugene was sent to Bergen Belsen, which he describes as “a hellhole. People were lying all over the place”. Typhus was rife and sanitation non-existent. On 15th April Eugene was liberated on the arrival of the British Army.
Commenting on the horrendous experience of the Holocaust Pope Francis said: “Auschwitz cries out with the pain of immense suffering and pleads for a future of respect, peace and encounter among peoples.” Let us seek each other’s face lest we should experience this horrible experience once more!