Ordinary people, extraordinary work

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place every year on 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. It is an international day to remember the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of others murdered by the Nazis, including Roma, Sinti and other ethnic minorities. It is also a day to remember the victims of other genocides worldwide, including Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. It is an occasion to learn, remember and reflect. 

The Hall of Names, Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Israel
Victims of the Holocaust – Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Israel

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘ordinary people’. Identifying and recording the ordinary people who die in genocide and armed conflict is at the heart of casualty recorders’ work.

Every day, casualty recording organisations worldwide go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the world remembers every victim of genocide and armed conflict. Their work involves identifying the dead and missing, clarifying the circumstances of their death, gathering evidence and witness testimonies, and meticulously documenting every detail for posterity.

‘Dehumanisation’ is an essential step in the ten-stage process of genocide, where the target group’s humanity is undermined and negated. (It could also be argued that in this stage the genocidal society dehumanises itself, enabling it to commit inhuman acts.)

Language plays a vital role in this process. In Nazi Germany, the Jews were labelled as ‘vermin’. In Rwanda, the Tutsis were called ‘cockroaches’. The common thread is that the target group is denoted as a swarm of invasive pests which should be exterminated. Individual victims are further dehumanised by being stripped of their names. During the Holocaust, these were infamously replaced by prisoner numbers tattooed on the victim’s body like a cattle mark.

Casualty recorders reverse this process by uncovering and publishing the names of the deceased. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre has created a database which includes the names and personal details of over four million victims of the Holocaust. Similar initiatives exist for the victims of genocide in Rwanda, Srebrenica, and elsewhere.

As the individual names and identities emerge they grow into something greater than the sum of its parts – a re-creation in death of the once living community. This almost miraculous act is all built on the painstaking records compiled by ordinary people, often working unpaid and for many decades.

At 4pm on 27 January, we are all invited to light the darkness with a candle to remember all victims of genocide and to stand against prejudice and hatred. To find out more about Holocaust Memorial Day and the events that will mark it, go to hmd.org.uk/ukhmd.

Rachel Taylor, ECC Advocacy Director

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