Why Remember the Holocaust?
Some may question, "70 years later, isn't it time we moved on from the Holocaust?" But, equally, we might ask, "If we are to 'move on' to a world that does not remember the Holocaust, what kind of world might it be?" Would ignorance be bliss or would we be taking a risk, relying on good luck that such atrocities would not happen again?
If transport companies such as airlines must understand how accidents happen to improve safety, is there not at least an equal duty to understand how societies break down, so that safeguards can be put in place? The Holocaust was a failure of civilization, democracy, ethics and religion. It was a failure of everything we might call "humanity."
Anti-Semitism still thrives. Groups targeted by the Nazis - Gypsies, disabled, gays and other racial groups - suffer discrimination in our own communities. This alone should cause us to ask what we have learned.
Not being Jewish, my brother Stephen and I once viewed the Holocaust as a Jewish concern. To us, it was merely one of many bad things happening in a bad war, a long time ago to other people - and it was their problem, not ours.
When Stephen and I visited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, known as Yad Vashem, the enormity of what we saw caused us to re-assess our views. This catastrophe was a product of modern society, and humanity needs to collectively bear responsibility.
Just as Bill and Joyce Cummings set up Institute for World Justice in response to their moving trip to Yad Vashem, Stephen and I established the UK's first Holocaust Museum, with support from our parents, so that schoolchildren might view it as a warning from history. Today eight hundred students visit the Centre each week to learn about and from the Holocaust.
But, before the Holocaust Centre even opened in 1995, genocide occurred in Rwanda in 1994. Around a million ethnic Tutsis were slaughtered in three months and many Hutus who opposed the radical Hutu government were killed. Then in Bosnia, Muslims were massacred at Srebrenica in 1995.
After ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999, where I served as a volunteer physician with the International Medical Corps, we founded the Aegis Trust, now a leading genocide prevention organization.
Having worked in Rwanda for many years, I am acutely aware of the legacy left by genocide, and of the vast challenge to address its underlying causes.
Yet I believe change is possible. Having its home at the Holocaust Centre and commemorating victims of genocide in Rwanda, Aegis is inspired by those who perished and by those who survived to campaign for the protection of groups under threat of destruction today, wherever and whoever they are.
One of the first organizations to investigate and put the media spotlight on genocide in Darfur, Aegis also works to bring perpetrators to justice. In 2010, we helped close legal loopholes that had allowed the UK to be a safe haven for war criminals. As a result, by March 2011 the first arrest took place of a suspect accused of murdering more than a hundred people in Peru in the early 1990's Genocide is not all gloom and terror. I've been inspired by people like brothers Damas and Jean-Francois Gisimba, Hutus in Rwanda who risked their lives to save 400 Tutsi children in their orphanage.
I've been inspired by the fortitude of survivors who experienced hell on earth, then lived and told their stories - not in anger, but to prevent it from happening to others; people like Elie Ayalon, whose story you can read on the IWJ website, who shares his life, not out of bitterness, but to spread sweetness.
I have also been inspired by students. I recently met a fine group at Tufts University who, while studying, also find the time to campaign, educate their peers about genocide, raise funds and respond to people in need. Similarly, Aegis Students is an anti-genocide movement that involves hundreds of university students, mostly in the UK and Rwanda, who have had a significant impact. One student helped to stop the removal of a Darfuri asylum seeker from the UK to Sudan where she would face certain persecution; another educated his MP about the need to have a War Crimes Unit within the police force; another spent her time opening the first Aegis charity shop to make a financial contribution to the cause.
Aegis Students adopted the white rose as a symbol. Not only is the white rose planted in the Holocaust Memorial in the UK in remembrance of victims of the Holocaust, it was the name of a group of young people in Germany who, in 1942, started a movement to oppose the tyranny of the Nazis. They were betrayed and executed. If those young people could risk and give their lives to oppose genocide, how much more should we in the free world be able to do to honor the white rose, to expend a little energy and money on behalf those who suffer today from genocide and to use our voice for those under threat.
For me, that is why we remember the Holocaust - to delve into the detail of how and why humanity failed and to learn from those who did not stand by and allow injustice to happen on their watch.
It is easy to yield to inevitability - that somewhere, sometime, one group of human beings will seek to destroy another. But let us not forget; the world is what we make it. If you are reading this on the IWJ website, you may be part of the small yet growing army of committed volunteers, survivors, student and generous supporters who want to see an end to genocide. Don't let the world erode your belief that, should you wish, you can be agents of change.
The steps we take may be small in the overall scheme of things, but if many people play a part, I believe, little by little, the world can be made a better, safer, place.
Dr. James Smith is co-founder and chief executive of Aegis Trust, both in the UK and Rwanda. In 2004, he worked with the Rwandan Government and Kigali City Council to develop the Kigali Memorial Centre, where hundreds of thousands of genocide victims are buried. He co-founded the UK Holocaust Memorial and Educational Centre with his brother Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.