A year ago I was sitting at my desk marking student essays. The telephone rang. At the other end, a soft female voice told me she was from the Counter Terrorism Division of the Crown Prosecution Service. I shuddered. What had I done? Was I to be deported? I was relieved when she asked if I would be willing to be an expert witness in a race-hate trial. Two defendants, Simon Sheppard and Stephen Whittle, had been arrested for disseminating anti-Semitic literature.
Sheppard, a political activist, had previously been imprisoned for distributing racially inflammatory material. His latest offence was to have circulated a vicious satirical comic, Tales of the Holohoax, which alleges that the events of the Holocaust never occurred. According to this tract, the Jewish community has intentionally created a myth about the gas chambers, as well as the number of Jews killed during the Second World War, to gain sympathy and support for Jews in Israel and the Jewish diaspora. Sheppard and Whittle were found guilty of various race-hate crimes, and although they fled to the US before sentencing, they were brought back to Britain and are now in prison.
These allegations about the Holocaust are not new. To the dismay of the Jewish community, Holocaust denial emerged after the Second World War. More recently, it has been promoted by various Arab leaders throughout the Middle East. Mahmoud Abbas, for example, who was a co-founder of Fatah and president of the Palestinian Authority, published The Other Face: The Secret Connection between the Nazis and the Zionist Movement, in which he stated that the Zionist movement inflated the number of Holocaust deaths to gain international support. In 2005 Mohammed Mahdi Akef, at the time the leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, denounced what he called the myth of the Holocaust in defending Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's views about the destruction of the Jews.
The Holocaust was not a hoax. As novelist and Nobel prizewinner Elie Wiesel has noted, it was the most documented tragedy in human history. In 2006 Kofi Annan, the United Nations' Secretary-General at the time, declared: "Remembering is a necessary rebuke to those who say the Holocaust never happened or has been exaggerated."
Holocaust Memorial Day has now been adopted in many nations around the world. On January 1996, a day of remembrance for Holocaust victims took place in Germany, coinciding with the anniversary of the date in 1945 when Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet forces. In 1999 Andrew Dismore MP approached then Prime Minister Tony Blair about creating a UK memorial.
Blair supported the request, and in January 2000, representatives from more than 40 governments met in Stockholm to discuss Holocaust remembrance. The delegates signed a declaration that formed the basis of the UN Statement of Commitment adopted for Holocaust Memorial Day, which embraces seven major principles:
- The Holocaust shook the foundations of modern civilisation. Its unprecedented character and horror will always hold universal meaning
- The Holocaust must have a permanent place in humanity's collective memory
- Future generations must understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect upon its consequences
- The sacrifices of those who risked their lives to protect or rescue victims are a touchstone of the human capacity for good
- Genocide, anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination must be eliminated from contemporary society
- Education and research about the Holocaust and other genocides must be promoted
- An annual Holocaust Memorial Day should take place to commemorate human tragedy and condemn prejudice, discrimination and racism.
In Britain, Holocaust Memorial Day has become a major event. In addition to a national service, local gatherings in schools, universities and elsewhere highlight the terrible events of the Nazi era. The aim of these commemorations is to remember the victims and survivors of the Holocaust as well as other genocides; ensure that the historical events associated with the Holocaust continue to be regarded as of fundamental importance; raise awareness and understanding of the events of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides as a continuing issue for humanity; and highlight the values of a society that respects and celebrates the differences between individuals and communities.