The dark days of the Nazi holocaust may well be over, but sadly attempted genocide and discrimination on the basis of race or religion is not. One needs only look at conflicts in Nigeria, Bosnia, Rwanda and even ISIS/ISIL's promotion of an Islamic caliphate, with contemptable human sacrifices of non Moslems as publicity stunts for their cause, as well as numerous equally despicable acts of terror, to see human hatred and violence based on religious affiliations and race, are sadly alive and well in the 21st Century!
Growing up, I was lucky to spend time in St Kilda at the home of my maternal grand-parents. St Kilda, along with the nearby suburbs of Elstenwick and Caulfield became home to some 3,000 survivors of the haulocaust. Indeed, Melbourne has the highest concentration of survivors outside Isreal. Jewish survivors came to Australia to get as far away from Europe as possible and in the process, contributed much to the establishment of a truly tolerant and cosmopolitain culture and values we now refer to as "multicultural Australia".
I also read the Dairy of Anne Frank, documenting the Frank family's going into hiding in Nazi held Amsterdam and subsequent capture and taking to Aushwitz. I watched endless numbers of films and documentaries focussing on the attrocities as I was growing up. I remember once watching a Melbourne Theatre Company production of 'Bent' about the treatment of gays under the Nazis. Two survivors of Auschwitz sat in the seats beside me and during the interval showed me their arms marked with the apalling number tatoos by the Nazis. I was moved to hear their stories, shared with a total stranger, that evening. Later I was to meet friends and colleagues whose parents bore the same scars.
'Bent' was a sobering reminder that gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, along with intellectuals were also targetted by the Nazis as sub-human. A friend's father also was imprisoned in Belsen, having been captured as a partisan in Italy, fighting the forces of facism.
I realised that policies and practices born of hatred can only produce misery and committed myself to always work to make the world a better, more peaceful and tolerant place. I became "a humanitarian" and I am certain that the stories of the survivors of the holocaust, helped to a great extent, to nurture my humanitarian values and work.
Little wonder, that eventually I found myself in Poland, visiting Auschwitz, now listed under UNESCO'S World Heritage Sites of Significant Cultural Heritage. It was, as expected, a place of horrors and nightmares, even in its current museum state. Its scale was what really got to me. It is made up of two sections. Firstly, there is the familiar brick buildings and "Arbeit Macht Frei" arch. You progress through buildings used for medical experiments and sterilisation, a brothel where Jewish women were forced to give sex to Nazi soldiers, room after room filled with shaven hair, stored to make blankets for the war effort, silver knives and forks and spoons, and suitcases. I remember clearly, looking at those bearing Greek names and wondering whether any of these were relatives of my Greek great grandmother, who was herself Jewish.I saw Otto Frank's and Olga Franks suitcases, Anne's father and sister. All that was harrowing enough. Then came the gas chambers. Horrors of our human legacy!
If all that was not enough, across the huge railway landing and along the road one arrives at the Auschwitz annex, built to house and "process" even more Jews. Auschwitz ii- Birkenau. The scale of this was even more enormous than Auscwitz i. The privations even more apalling. Facilities were designed to maximise the effects of the cold. Huge bunkhouses open to the elements on two sides, with heaters uselessly placed within the drafts. Three tiered sleeping platforms, I could not call them bunks. Mass graves and places of death. A visit to these death camps is harrowing but as a human, there is a degree of responsibility to visit not just the places of joy and human achievement, but those who plunge us to the darkest of forces ever to have inhabited this fragile planet. I was left in shock and despair, thankful for my Polish companions with whom I was able to debrief. Thankful for the wonderful survivor of Auswitz who acted as our guide.
However, it is not necesarry to travel to Auschwitz or any other of the Nazi death camps to access the stories and experiences of survival. Melbourne, along with many other places has its own Holocaust Centre. Located in Elsterwick, the Melbourne Holocaust Centre is well worth a visit. Twice daily, survivors share their stories with the public. I have twice taken senior school groups and on both occasions, we all agreed that the singulary most pwerful experience was hearing the stories of the survivors. There are also galleries of photographs and memorabilia, as well as an unsurpassed human rights bookshop.
On the 27th of January, pause a while to reflect on the horror of the Holocaust. Celebrate the survivors. Make sure your children read 'The Dairy of Anne Frank', 'Ellie' and the 'Boy in Striped Pyjamas' and other books and films such as 'Schindler's List' that keep our knowledge of the Holocaust alive. Even better, take your children to hear a survivor share their own story, whilst we still have the privillege of having them amongst us, by visiting your nearest Holocaust Museum. You are most likely to be moved and inspired, rather than depressed, as a result!
Make sure your children know the story of The Holocaust!
Lest we forget!