Holocaust Memorial Day
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
The word ‘Holocaust’ comes from Greek and means literally ‘entire combustion’ (‘holos’ whole and ‘kaustos’ burning). Though the term was introduced to describe a sacrificial offering burned at an altar, since World War II (1939-1945) the word has been more commonly associated with the tragic events from 1933 to 1945.
During those years approximately 15-17 million people were murdered; among these, six million were Jews and some 5 million others were part of discriminated groups (such as homosexuals, people with mental or physical disabilities, Gypsies, people of colour, Slavs, etc.) targeted for racial, political, ideological, and behavioural reasons.
Sadly, Hitler’s action is not the last case of persecutions and genocide that history has known. Since the Second World War, other countries, social groups, and ethnicities have suffered from the same treatment.
In November 2005, the United Nations passed a resolution (Assembly Resolution 60/7) to mark 27 January as an international day of commemoration to honour the victims of the Holocaust and to remind the world of the perspective that the Holocaust provides relevant to preventing future genocides and persecutions.
Towards the Liberation
From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe. The highest number of deportations took place during the summer and autumn of 1942, when more than 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto alone. Just at Auschwitz, more than 2 million people were murdered in a process resembling a large-scale industrial operation.
In June 1944, the expedition known as D-Day started. This marked the beginning of the liberation of France (and later the rest of western Europe) and ended with the Allies’ victory on the Western Front. By the end of the month, more than 850,000 American, British, and Canadian troops had embarked to stop the Nazi tyranny.
While Allied and Soviet troops moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Nazi Germany, they encountered concentration camps, mass graves, and numerous other sites of Nazi crimes. In the meantime, the German forces had begun evacuating many of the death camps in the fall of 1944 through the so-called “death marches”, which resulted in the deaths of 250,000 to 375,000 people.
On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz concentration camp complex, where they discovered more than 6,000 prisoners, who had not been evacuated. Afterwards, the allied army proceeded to evacuate other major concentration camps and sub-camps. They provided the victims with food, medical support, and collected evidence for war crimes trials.
When did HMD start?
The first attempt at a Holocaust remembrance day was in 1948, a decision made by the Israeli chief rabbinate, that had originally opted to mark the day on the 10th of Tevet, a day of fasting in December. It failed because it wasn’t strictly connected to the Holocaust.
The choice of a single day wasn’t easy: since the organised killing began in June 1941, and continued until the end of World War II, any day of the year would have been appropriate.
Initially, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April-May 1943) was seen as the most symbolic event of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, and therefore it was pushed to be the day of commemoration. As the date coincided with Passover, another Jewish celebration, the date was changed.
After several compromises and discussions over the years, in 1979 the U.S. President’s Commission on the Holocaust recommended annual Days of Remembrance, and in 1980, the Congress unanimously passed a law establishing the commission’s successor body, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. This occurred 25 years before the United Nations established January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as “International Day of Commemoration” in 2005.
Commemoration of the Holocaust is not confined to Israel and the United States. Many countries, especially in Europe, commemorate the Holocaust on January 27, as well.
You can find a list of countries that celebrate the Holocaust Memorial Day here; some but not all take place on January 27.
Why is it important to mark Holocaust Memorial Day?
Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us of the atrocities suffered by millions of civilians. It’s a time of awareness that encourages people to reflect on the origin of those terrible events, caused by discrimination, racism, and hatred that weren’t stopped in time, let alone prevented.
It’s important to mark this day and to educate ourselves on what led the United Nations to institute this as a Remembrance day. It is essential to acknowledge the discrimination and persecution that occurred in the past and still continues in some areas today, in order to counteract it, help those still suffering and to prevent similar future events. Being aware that the discrimination has not ended, no matter where you live, is the first step to stopping it and create a safer future for everyone.
The UK Holocaust Memorial Trust’s slogan, “Learning from genocide – for a better future”, sums up what we should all be aiming to learn from this day and the message we should be spreading.
Persecutions and genocide in other countries
Since the Nazi persecution of Jews, among others, there have been and continue to be further cases of oppression and mistreatment. The Holocaust profoundly affected countries where Nazi crimes were perpetrated, but also had universal implications and consequences:
When the radical communist political party, the Khmer Rouge, seized power, it ruthlessly imposed an extremist programme to reconstruct Cambodia on the communist model of Mao’s China. This programme resulted in forced work in collective farms, forced emigration of those who were not physically or mentally capable of such work, persecutions, and discrimination of ethnic minorities.
Approximately one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, two large ethnic and social groups of the African Great Lakes region, were murdered in the genocide in Rwanda. After the death of Rwanda’s president, extremist Hutus leaders, supported by the State itself and local officials, incited civilians to murder Tutsis.
After the Second World War, Bosnia was one of six republics in the state of Yugoslavia. When Bosnia declared independence in 1992, it soon descended into war between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians), who wanted to isolate other ethnic groups to create a ‘Greater Serbia’. In July 1995, with the backdrop of the ongoing war, Bosnian Serb troops descended on the town of Srebrenica and murdered around 8,000 Muslim men and boys over 12 years old.
In 2003, a civil war began in the region between the sedentary population of black African farmers and the lighter-skinned nomadic Arab population. Before the conflict, Darfur (North-East Africa) had an ethnically mixed population of around six million black Africans and Arabs. This civil war has led to the deaths of 200,000 to 400,000 civilians.
For more information on this topic, see our section on Racism, Islamophobia & Antisemitism.
Edited by Abbie Harby