“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” These vital words were spoken in 1993 by Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, at the end of a speech imploring humanity to never forget the Nazis’ systematic evil, and the deadly consequences when those present in humanity’s worst moments choose to stay silent.
The world agrees that the Holocaust – the mass murder of Jews, Slavs, Roma and others deemed “undesirable” by the Third Reich and its collaborators – must never happen again. Across Europe stand memorials whose singular goal is ensuring the horrors of the Holocaust remain at the forefront of collective memory – and goodness knows we need such a reminder.
As the world gathers in sombre reflection for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – the notorious concentration camp where more than a million European Jews met their end – the spectre of antisemitism is rearing its ugly head once more.
Fuelled by a resurgent far right, antisemitism is on the rise across the globe – including on these very shores. Here in the UK, antisemitic incidents have increased by more than 16 per cent since 2017. In recent weeks a rabbi was beaten up in Stamford Hill, north London, and a synagogue in nearby Hampstead was targeted with antisemitic graffiti. Now more than ever, we need a physical reminder of the dark path Britain is retreading.
Plans for a new British memorial to the victims of Nazi persecution began in earnest in 2015, when David Cameron promised it at a Holocaust Memorial Day event. Four years later, the winners of a competition to design the memories were announced: the enigmatic architects David Adjaye and Ron Arad. Originally allocated £50m, the government has since increased its pledge to £75m, with the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation (UKHMF) overseeing construction.
However, the project has been dogged by criticism. When it was announced that Victoria Tower Gardens was the proposed location for the memorial, Royal Parks, the charity that looks after the gardens, put out a statement saying that while they understood the need for such a memorial, “the sober nature of the memorial [would] change ... what is currently a relaxed park”. A petition to prevent a memorial being built in the gardens has since garnered more than 12,000 signatures.
It seems their objections have left the project in limbo. In August, the leader of Westminster City Council said that the government’s planning application for the National Holocaust Memorial “was heading towards an unfavourable recommendation” – though they have yet to deliver it. You may ask why the memorial doesn’t just move somewhere else, or even why we need another memorial when there’s already one in Hyde Park which opened in 1983, as well as an excellent exhibition on the Holocaust curated by the Imperial War Museum.
Then there are those who point to the fact that Britain was one of the few European countries that did not directly participate in the Holocaust. While this is true, the UK was not guiltless.
Take the Kindertransport, for example. We like to champion our heroic decision to rescue 10,000 Jewish children from the clutches of Nazism. Yet in reality this is a very small number, a number it took immense pressure for the government to accept. What of the millions left behind? In many ways our indifference was as harmful as active participation. The Holocaust brought out the best and worst of humanity. Yet ours is an often selective history of the Holocaust, one that plays up the good and downplays the bad. Whether we find a new location or change aspects of the design, we need a new memorial to rebalance our retelling, and ensure we remember the Holocaust for as it was, not as we would prefer it to have been.
Seventy-five years after the Holocaust, those who directly bore witness to it are dwindling in number. Yet at a time when antisemitism is resurgent, their experiences are more relevant than ever. Our elected officials have the power to prevent a repeat of history, or they can choose to look the other way. A memorial on their doorstep would not let them. For every time MPs will glance out of the window, they will see what exactly happens when they turn a blind eye.