I was privileged enough to speak this evening at UCL’s Holocaust Memorial Day event. Seeing as I rarely write on this blog, I thought I would cheat a little at being a writer and upload the transcript of my speech tonight.
In memory of the 11 Million.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is Memory. We all have memories that come to define who we are and what we think about ourselves. Many of us have memories of travelling or living in other countries, of our early childhood friends, and of our families. But today we take a moment to consider, that as well as these happy memories, there are those among us who live with other, more tragic recollections, and we consider the nature of our actions in response.
I, and I suspect many other members of the Jewish Society, grew up with the shadow of the Holocaust lurking somewhere in the backs of our minds. I remember knowing vaguely what the Holocaust was, yet being too scared to read some of the books on our family bookcase. But one day, when I was about eleven or twelve, I decided to take the plunge. During lunch break, I took myself to the library and I Google Imaged ‘Auschwitz’. What happened next, I can only describe as sheer horror. Immediately, I felt indebted to my own identity – I was a Jew, and for many years after I carried the burden of knowing what might have happened to me had I been alive under Nazi occupation in 1939.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I realised I had another layer to add to this. As a deaf person – as a disabled citizen – I felt doubly implicated. I would look at my hearing aids and think, if they didn’t get me for being a Jew, for sure they would get me for this. Only recently did I realise that I had another facet to lend to this story. Having suffered from depression and disordered eating as a teenager, I saw that my history of mental health could have yet again placed me on the wrong side of ‘desirable’. And through each of these realisations, I saw that the Holocaust is not simply a history we can learn through Google Image – or dare I say it, even Wikipedia. Rather, it is a story of identities and of prevailing humanity, and it is one that we can’t help but to learn from.
Yet despite this, genocide continues to be a phenomenon that often feels distant and disconnected to our lives here in London. But sadly, it is far closer to us than we think. During the lifetimes of our immediate friends and family, we have watched tragedy continue to unfold. Of course, the Holocaust was witnessed, revealed and even experienced by many of our grandparents. Yet in our parents’ lifetimes, millions were murdered in Cambodia, and even in the lifetimes of the youngest here, the cries of victims have reverberated in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
So we ask ourselves, what can we do? What do we do in this often hopeless and impossible world?
One of the answers is simple, and as students here in the UK we are already on the right path: the path in pursuit of knowledge. And if we do one thing today, I ask that we strengthen our commitment to learning. We take one minute to learn about a genocide that we do not know of, or have not yet finished exploring. In doing so, we strengthen our commitment to memory, and in turn to the preservation of our own humanity.
Holocaust Memorial Day doesn’t ask us to remember on just one day a year but it is about the lessons we can learn from the past and take away, the lessons which stay with us every day.
So I’d like to conclude by telling you all a quote from Hillel the Elder, one of the finest rabbis and thinkers of the Jewish tradition.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
The truth is that we never know what is going to happen tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that. But Hillel teaches us something important. He shows us that if we begin to hesitate, we make achieving our goals further and further away. He tells us that we are a society, a global people, and we must look after one another as best as we can. But he also reminds us of something universal. At the very beginning, we must stand up for ourselves, and for what we believe is truly right. And so today, as well as remembering the victims of the Holocaust, of Cambodia, Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, I ask you to remember your conscience. As we keep the memory alive, I ask you to remember yourself.