Growing up in Norfolk in the 1980s, the Holocaust wasn’t something that was spoken of. We were one of very few Jewish families in the county, and our parents raised us with really strong values of social contribution, but little in the way of Jewish knowledge. The Holocaust wasn’t on the national curriculum, and survivors weren’t heard or listened to in the way they are today, and many in fact, almost four decades later, were still not ready to talk about what they had experienced or witnessed. I didn’t really learn about it until I went to university, and threw myself into Jewish student life. Perhaps this was a blessing, perhaps not.

For me, the Shoah is one part of a longer Jewish story of persecution, flight and renewal. All my friends and family in the Jewish community can tell stories about how their family came to England, what they had to run from, what they had to leave behind, and how they had to change their names along the way (and sometimes generations later, reclaiming those lost identities). Not all those stories trace a path through the inhuman monolith of genocide, but also through smaller, specific cruelties such as a friend’s father who fled Iraq after being arrested and falsely accused of spying in the 1960s, my great grandfather who fled forced child conscription into the Russian army, or my husband’s grandmother, born on the boat to England, as her family fled pogroms in Poland in the 1910s.

All my children’s other great grandparents were born in the UK. We have family stories to tell, family photos to treasure. A few years ago, I realised how unusual our British Jewish story is. My son had a group of friends staying over. At one point, they paused to look at the photos that we have in our hall, with our parents’ and grandparents’ wedding photos displayed like a family tree on the wall. Of the boys who were staying, no other boy could have created a similar display. Each was missing at least one branch of their family, and had a family story with gaps in it.

It's easy to assume that the sense of awareness of Jewish history our community possesses is shared by wider society. But a few years ago I took a reality check. I had a casual conversation with a staunch and active socialist and anti-racist who did not know that the Spanish Inquisition involved Jews at all, let alone that they were forced to choose between fleeing the country (not even a possibility for most people at that time), forced conversion or death. When we talk about the Holocaust, we need to understand it as one part of centuries of persecution of Jews, all around the world.

Make no mistake – it is nothing but good that children, Jewish or otherwise, grow up better informed and more aware of the Holocaust than I did. There are many thoughtful educational resources available to teach young people about the Nazi genocide, and in recent decades we’ve seen much new literature, film and art that, whilst never fully capturing the enormity, can create emotional resonances that can be felt by all.

On this important anniversary, 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi camps in Europe, I feel a sense of awe and gratitude to HMDT, and to wider society for embracing this commemoration, this year and every year since HMD was first marked in 2001. I’m coming to terms with the fact that my engagement with Holocaust Memorial Day may always feels a little outward facing, a little bit as if it is my duty to show others that I am marking it, rather than a personal moment of grief and reflection. As an observant Jew, there are other occasions in the religious calendar where I fast, sit on the floor and weep for the tragedies that occurred through Jewish history.

Auschwitz concentration camp

That is not to undermine the significance of a global commemoration, there are different ways to mourn for those of us for whom the Holocaust has touched; a public day that we share with the wider society, and private ways to remember and mourn for our lost relatives, ancestors and history that we can only ever reckon with on our own. But I am glad that whilst I grieve in private, I can stand with so many others, committing publicly to never let this happen again.

We must remind every generation that the Holocaust wasn’t a singular event, perpetrated by a small group of ‘evil’ people but that genocide is a culmination of a long standing legacy - of ideas, prejudices and beliefs. HMD, particularly in the UK, purposely acknowledges all the victims of Nazi persecution as well as subsequent genocides, such as the terrible events in Bosnia and Rwanda, and this is really important to me personally, because this is a day when we must reflect on the bigger meaning, and honour all the victims of genocide.

The Holocaust was mass murder, only made possible because of words and ideas that built up over many years, with misinformation and propaganda, with the dehumanising necessary to turn fellow human beings into the ‘other’. So my passionate wish is that anyone moved by the public commemorations of HMD this year, takes the feelings they have experienced, in listening to testimony, in watching moving films, in lighting a commemorative candle, and uses that moment to make a private change. Whether that change is to learn more about the roots of genocide, whether it is to reach out across divided communities, or to become involved in campaigns supporting groups who are experiencing prejudice, hate or, yes, genocide, right now. The thought underpinning this year’s commemorations is ‘Stand Together’ and my personal resolution this year is to do more to raise awareness, my own as well as others, of the systematic destruction of the Uighur communities in China. In a society that is polarised and divided up into our own bubbles of opinion, let’s break out and find ways to work together to move away from hate and towards hope.


Jemma Levene is the Deputy Director of HOPE not hate Charitable Trust.