Not in Our Day

Published January 27, 2022 by Revd Canon Peter Houston

Peter Houston reflects on the pathways of prejudice and empathy for Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January 2022).

Every light casts a shadow. In the liberation of a post Holocaust world, Auschwitz survivor, Primo Levi writes, "It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere". This quote greets you as you enter the permanent exhibition of the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre in South Africa. To your right is a photo of the liquidation of Krakow Ghetto that fits an entire wall. Diagonally opposite is the Primo Levi quote and then there is a stretch of wall to the left with back-lit pictures from several genocides, including the Holocaust. The final picture in this series is of a memorial in Rwanda where the words "Never Again" have been stencilled in purple paint on a white lintel stretching across an alcove filled with bleached human skulls.

An immediate tension is created between the "Never Again" commitment of post-Holocaust education and activism and the "Never Again" seen on a Rwandan memorial. It happened, therefore it can happen, and it can happen everywhere, and sadly it does.

The Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre facilitates learning spaces using stories and artefacts from the Holocaust, Apartheid South Africa and the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda to reflect on the terrible pathways from prejudice to genocide. We grow up with the prejudicial attitudes of our in-group, defined by family, religion, culture and community. Prejudicial attitudes left unchecked can manifest in prejudiced personal actions. The bully in the playground or in the street, and the bystanders who say or do nothing. Collective prejudice can be written into law by a nation state so that an entire ethnic or religious group is discriminated against, marginalised, or diminished in some way. This provides the conditions for collective violence where the state is a complicit bystander or active perpetrator through the actions (or inaction) of state security apparatus. Think Night of Broken Glass (November Pogroms) in Germany on 9–10 November 1938. Pause to apply a contemporary learning to police who turn a blind eye to the continual targeting of a specific group or worse, empower the collective civilian perpetrators in any nation state today. The final tragic step is the intentional state sponsored, orchestrated and organised killing of a designated group: Genocide. The six million Jews of the Holocaust which we remember on this Holocaust Memorial Day.

Not all individual or collective prejudice results in discrimination that is enshrined in law. Not all discriminatory laws are a precursor to or have genocidal intent. Apartheid South Africa is a prime example. But no genocide can happen that is not first birthed in the prejudices of the heart where one group of humans believe they are superior to another group of humans. Tell tale signs that the one day of Primo Levi's fears is becoming this day is when any group is portrayed and seen as sub-human, less than human. It is no coincidence that the Nazis likened Jewish people to rats and Rwandan Tutsis were called cockroaches. Rats and cockroaches in the collective imagination are vermin that need to be exterminated. Consequently, this dehumanising language was applied by the Nazis to their killing centres – "extermination camps".

My work with the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre, in guiding visitors through the exhibitions and facilitating workshops with learners from schools, is premised on conveying historically accurate knowledge of these past events. "Never Again" depends on remembering the past. It stands to reason that you cannot remember what you haven't first learned. But knowledge by itself is insufficient.

Knowledge does not lead to wisdom or wise actions unless empathy is created, and a different path consciously chosen. We hope that through guiding and facilitation, through personal stories and discussions, that learners come to empathise with the tragedy of the Holocaust, so deeply in fact, that they commit to disproving Levi's claim or at the very least ensuring that if it should happen again one day, it will not be in our day.

This article is written by Revd Canon Peter Houston who is an Anglican priest and Canon Theologian in the Diocese of Natal in South Africa. He is interested in Historical Theology and in particular, the ongoing mutations of Christian Antisemitism. Peter has undertaken online courses at the Woolf Institute.

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