"We must not forget the atrocities"
Sunday 27 January is International Holocaust Memorial Day. Stephanie Cottam explains how the legacy of the Holocaust continues to affect families like hers today
Sunday 27 January is International Holocaust Memorial Day. Stephanie Cottam (below) explains how the legacy of the Holocaust continues to affect families like hers today
In January 1942, in a large villa in Wannsee, Berlin, 15 high-ranking officials from all the departments of the Nazi Government sat around a table and took just 85 minutes to discuss and agree upon the “final solution to the Jewish question”.*
The result of those discussions was the mass murder of 6 million Jews from across Europe (including gypsies and people with disabilities), using meticulously detailed lists which had been drafted for this very purpose. Every community would be affected.
From the time the Nazi Party came to power in 1935, legislation was introduced which was aimed directly against the Jewish People, depriving them of their German citizenship. Even their homes were out of bounds,when it was insisted that German-Jews had a large ‘J’ stamped onto their passports. They were permitted to leave Germany, but they were not allowed to return.
In September 1941 (from 1939 in Poland), it became a legal requirement for all Jews to wear the bright yellow Star of David wherever they went. Against the backdrop of a dark coat, the yellow star stood out, marking them as an easy target for ridicule, abuse and torment.
This helped the Nazi army to identify who they should ‘remove’ from the streets. Jews were forced away from their homes and community and herded, like cattle, into the ‘Jewish quarter’. This became nothing more than a squalid ghetto – a holding place of the Jews who were to be transported away to one of the, now infamous, Concentration or Extermination Camps, if they didn’t die from starvation, disease or hunger first.
My own grandfather, when he left Germany and fled to the UK, was unable to return to his home and ended up having to settle here, away from his family and friends. This was a blessing in disguise when he heard about the murder of his parents, my great-grandparents, and his brother, less than a year before the end of the war.
Last year we discovered they had been captured in May 1944. The train carrying my great-grandparents stopped before it reached the Theresienstadt Camp, everyone was herded-off, made to stand facing the pile of dead bodies in the overflowing shallow grave at the side of the tracks and then shot in the back. There was no room in Theresienstadt for any more Jews.
It hit me recently how the legacy of the Holocaust continues to affect many families today. When 6 million Jews were killed, we lost our rich heritages and family histories; families lost track of their ancestry, as all trace of the generations before us, such as the family photograph albums, were wiped out, burned and destroyed.
Those Jews who did manage to escape the Nazi-occupied countries hid among the locals, often changing their names and hiding their identities. The impact of this ripples among us today, as many adults are finding out the truth of their identity and heritage as they research their family trees.
We must not forget! We cannot forget, the atrocities of anti-Semitic thought from one group of men which led to major action across one nation, spreading out beyond their borders into the whole of Europe. How can we forget when so many lives continue to be affected even today? This is why it is important we join with the many voices around the world on Sunday 27 January by remembering International Holocaust Day. This year it’s theme is ‘Communities Together: Build a Bridge’.
When the Nazis first started their campaign of hate against the Jewish People, communities were fragmented – neighbours, friends and business partners became enemies on opposing sides.
By standing together with the millions of Jewish People who will stop to remember, we continue to build the bridges between our communities once again.
©CMJ and Stephanie Cottam (née Gutmann), 2013
*Detailed minutes of that meeting can be viewed at the The Wannsee Conference and the Genocide of the European Jews – a memorial and educational exhibition.