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The EU helps us learn the lessons of the Holocaust

I READ with interest Bryan O’Hanlon’s letter in yesterday’s National highlighting the extraordinary bravery of Jane Haining, the Scottish Christian missionary who refused to abandon the Jewish children in her care and in doing so was murdered in Auschwitz.

Inhumanity, malevolence or outright stupidity aside, can you imagine the sheer arrogance that it would take to believe that you’ve uncovered a vast conspiracy to “pretend” that the Holocaust happened?

As a general rule, Holocaust deniers go in the same “ignore pile” as spambots and people who believe the CIA is controlling people through their fillings, but they seem to have been more emboldened lately. It’s an uncomfortable, upsetting subject, and that’s exactly why we need to make sure we understand.

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First published in The National, 01 February 2018.

The annual Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27, when we remember the lives lost and vow to learn the lessons of the past lest we be condemned to repeat them, and generally the tone is sombre, heartfelt, and reverent.

But a respectful tweet from Guy Verhofstadt MEP – “Today we remember the victims of the Holocaust. This tragedy was the worst example of what extreme nationalism can lead to. The European Union was created to ensure this will never happen again.” – somehow led to outrage amongst some of the more Eurosceptic commentators and the far right across Europe. “Stop politicising it!” they shrieked, as if the state-sanctioned mass murder of millions of people had somehow happened in a vacuum. Instead the opposite is true. The Holocaust was the eventual product of politics gone wrong and the removal of human rights. We must learn lessons from that and more than ever we must remember what happened so that we do not ever go down the same road again.

The EU was born from the ashes of a terrible war – not just a war between soldiers on a battlefield, but a war within the human self, between the best sides of humanity and its worst. The late Simone Veil, the parliament’s first female president, addressed the world with the blue ink of Auschwitz-Birkenau permanently tattooed on her skin. The dream was more than a cold, logical trading bloc; it was to lock countries into cycles of perpetual negotiation so that they couldn’t declare war on each other. Where once guns and tanks and bombs left a wake of destruction across Europe, there would be diplomacy and talks, checks and balances. Instead of sending in the soldiers, we send in the negotiators. Instead of killing each other, we argue over washing machine standards.

For too long, the EU has been painted as the domain of shadowy bureaucrats and tedious research sub-proposals on regulations. A pinch-faced, bespectacled, milk-blooded boogeyman of dust and ink. If anything, the EU is a soldier who put his gun away and picked up a pen, determined never to repeat the horrors of a war in which so many good, decent men and women, comrades all, fell and were lost forever. In 1949, when the EU was still a dream not a reality, Robert Schuman said: “We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfilment of the same recurrent dream that for 10 centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organisation putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace.”

We cannot ignore the truth in the name of political expediency. It is morally wrong to brush this under the carpet and pretend that one is irrelevant to the other. The EU exists because nation states got it horribly, horribly wrong 80 years ago, and Europe needed a vast, dramatic, brave and bold change. If we don’t keep talking and remembering and – most importantly – learning from the Holocaust, we’re shaming the memory of those who died.

We need to also remember the bravery of ordinary people, because the essential decency of people will always shine through in dark times.

Nicholas Winton saved 669 children from being deported to the camps by arranging their safe passage to Britain, but his bravery, decency and kindness went unnoticed until his daughter unearthed a meticulously kept notebook listing the children, their parents’ names and the addresses of their foster families.

Jean Moulin, the hero of the French Resistance, was tortured to death by the Nazi Gestapo after refusing to betray his comrades. It was the bravery you’d expect from a man who had previously cut his own throat because he feared he might break under torture.

Youra Livchitz was a young doctor who, with two friends, a single pistol, and a lamp wrapped in red paper, masterminded the daring Attack on the Twentieth Convoy, saving 118 lives from the death camps. They were assisted in no small part by the train driver moving the engine as slowly as he dared in order to allow more passengers to jump to safety. Livchitz was later captured by the Gestapo but managed to overpower his guard, steal his uniform and escape.

Should we stop talking about their actions, their bravery and the fact that so many people sacrificed themselves to save others, even strangers?

The Holocaust is a terrible lesson from history. We must not allow it to be forgotten. Neither must we stop learning from it.