Why Ireland cannot forget the Holocaust

When memories grow faint the lessons of history grow dangerously dim

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks in front of the main railway entrance to Birkenau as she visits the former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland on December 6, 2019. - Merkel is on her first visit to the Auschwitz former German death camp. (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)

It is 2020. A new century has moved into a new decade. Occasionally remembered are the generations and a continent ravaged by world wars.

New generations are growing up in a Europe where most take for granted the right to live in a world, free from death and destruction. But now is a time for caution. When memories grow faint the lessons of history grow dangerously dim.

How then do we ensure that never again is a situation enabled which will unleash events as cataclysmic as the Holocaust, where millions were deprived not just of liberty but of the very right to be treated as human beings?

Where Jewish men, women and children and other victims of the Holocaust including people with disabilities, Poles, Slavs and ethnic minorities, Roma/Sinti, those labelled homosexual, political activists, Christians of all denominations were sent to their deaths?


In 1930s Europe, fear and uncertainty allowed extremes not just to flourish but to unleash a catastrophic disaster on the world. The Holocaust did not emerge from nowhere. It was the result of fear and uncertainty. It was the result of seeds sown over many years. Seeds of hatred and mistrust. Ultimately seeds of evil.

How do we prevent this happening once more? How do we guarantee those immortal words “Never Again”?

In truth there are no guarantees. It is the very essence of our humanity that ours is a fragile existence. We need only look to the great questions of our day including climate change and the ever increasing migrant crisis and the myriad challenges to the European project, once hailed as our buttress against future war and bloodshed, to remind us that our actions are not without consequences, our failures to act not without significance or effect.

Seventy-five years ago on January 27th, 1945, the Soviet army entered Auschwitz and liberated more than 7,000 emaciated and barely living souls. There followed thereafter the liberation of camps across Europe and of course, with it, the inevitable recriminations of who knew and when, who could have stopped the Nazi machine, who were the collaborators, who betrayed Jews and others and sent them to certain death?

Those who perpetrated the Holocaust were, like their victims, men and women, sons and daughters, cherished family members. Those who stayed silent or indeed collaborated were ordinary men and women who, in ordinary times, were model citizens. Yet, given fertile ground for hatred, some became killers, others remained silent and the world became a dark and dangerous place.

Today in Ireland there are only two people living who survived the Holocaust, Suzi Diamond and Tomi Reichental. Largely gone too are those who, when liberating the camps, witnessed the suffering of fellow humans living beyond the gates of hell.

With few left to carry the burden of memory - because burden it was - the baton falls to a new generation, not just to remember the Holocaust but to ensure that never again can Europe fall into the deep abyss which led to it happening, because happen it did.

There are none of us viewing history from our safe space who would not like to think that in humanity’s darkest hour we would rise to the challenge. We might even like to think that we would be included amongst the Righteous Among the Nations, people like Mary Elmes from Cork who risked her life to save Jewish children from deportation.

But that was then and this is now. Do we acknowledge today the clear challenges facing us or, like some after the second  World War, do we plead ignorance to the forces of evil? In Europe today, the far right rises, anti-Semitism flourishes, freedoms and rights are challenged.

Events such as the Holocaust never spring from one fateful decision alone, rather they are the result of a myriad of circumstances which come together to form disaster. If some engage in careless talk about imagined enemies, can we really be surprised when others less nuanced act out their own distrusts on their perceptions of ‘threats’?

Can we say with any certainty that undercurrents of incitement are not present today which, given the right circumstances, could once again bring humanity to the brink?

In 1945 people claimed to be unaware of what lay behind barbed wire, where trains were travelling to, or what had become of neighbours. In 2020 there are those who would push us towards extreme views on those seeking refuge, those who commit and harbour anti-Semitism. There are those who would push us towards a future of fear and distrust.

People knew in 1945. They know in 2020. What we choose to do about it in 2020 will not just define our generation but our very existence.

Ours is a fragile world. While we cannot be certain whether we might have been a victim, a perpetrator or a bystander during the Holocaust, we can certainly commit to being none of those today. In our everyday actions - and how we choose to express our opinions - we need to actively commit to the protection of that which was nearly lost during the Holocaust - our humanity.

Eibhlin Byrne is a former Lord Mayor of Dublin and is chairwoman of Holocaust Education Trust Ireland (HETI)