Holocaust Memorial Day: The catalyst for change

Thursday, 27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day, a time to reflect on the past to safeguard the future. At Leicester, the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies plays a pivotal part in achieving this goal.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and the millions of people killed under Nazi persecution of other groups. Taken from their homes, sent en-masse to concentration camps and systematically exterminated under the guise of being ‘unpure’ and ‘second-class citizens’, two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population were wiped out in one of the most horrific instances of mass murder to take place in the history of our planet. But sadly, it’s not the only one of its kind.

Between 1.5 and 2 million Cambodians were murdered by a communist political party between 1975 and 1979; over 8,000 Bosniak people were killed under the guise of ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the Bosnian Serb Army during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War; 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda, East-Central Africa, during the 1994 Rwandan Civil War; and between 80,000 and 500,000 ethnic Darfuri people have been killed during the ongoing conflict in Western Sudan.

Holocaust Memorial Day is a time for society to reflect on these atrocities in the hope they can be prevented in the future. For the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester, remembering the past is an everyday occurrence, and using it to influence the future is what they’re aiming for.

Past, present and future

The Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies is the oldest of its kind in Britain and the first research centre dedicated to the study of the Holocaust to be established within a British university. Founded in 1990 through the determination and effort of Professor Aubrey Newman, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Leicester, whose passion for such a centre saw him secure an endowment from the Burton Trust that kick-started its creation.

From conducting research into the Holocaust and closely related subjects including Jewish history and culture, and inter-faith relations, to educating the general public through outreach programmes, over the last 30 years the Centre has been pivotal in ensuring that our knowledge and comprehension of these events, at a local and international level, don’t fade with time.

In January, the Centre, which is part of the School of History, Politics and International Relations (HyPIR), welcomed a new director, Dr Svenja Bethke, whose research focuses on the history of the Holocaust, with a strong interest in the Jewish experience in East Central Europe under German occupation. “For me, our work at the Centre is about memory, it’s about the aftermath and how to deal with these crimes going forward,” she explains. “Our responsibility is two-fold. We must continue to honour the past by uncovering the truth – however uncomfortable that may be. But we must also draw parallels between these atrocities and contemporary issues, like racism, fascism and extreme right-wing political movements, that are on the rise once more, so that we can avoid history repeating itself.”

By drawing these parallels, the Centre can highlight the historical issues that are still ongoing in the modern day to a new generation of students, encouraging reflection on civil rights and ethical duties as well as on the uses and abuses of human knowledge and rationality. It warns us that any society, however modern, where these standards slip and disappear, can become criminal.

Ensuring the past lives on

The Centre contributes to a number of modules on undergraduate courses within History at Leicester and the teaching of these modules is often aided by a contribution from Dr Martin Stern, a retired doctor, Holocaust survivor and honorary fellow at the Centre, who shares his experiences and first-hand accounts of the Holocaust with students.

The interactive and creative nature of the modules led by the Centre is invaluable for students, whose feedback often praises the meaningful discussions they’re able to have as a result, as well as the breadth of resources that they have access to as part of the teaching. “Because we have broadened our PGR community so significantly, we are seeing students use their knowledge and apply it to wider themes,” says Dr Bethke. “For example, exploring sexual violence and the experience of women in the Rwandan Genocide and more recently exploring the trans-imperial nature of British colonial violence in Australia, South Africa and India, between 1857-1884.”

Holocaust Memorial Day: One Day

Each year, Holocaust Memorial Day revolves around a theme. This year, that theme is ‘One Day’, and it is a concept that has many interpretations. One Day to remember. One Day there will be no more genocides. One Day to make a difference. For Dr Bethke, this sentiment is echoed: “One day, I wish that the Holocaust could be something that we remember, without the danger of it happening ever again. Unfortunately, although society has evolved in many ways, we are fundamentally still human beings and human beings have this insatiable drive to commit atrocities on one another. While we cannot stop this directly, indirectly we can educate our students and the wider public on the consequences. Hopefully we can be the catalyst for change.”

Holocaust Memorial Lecture

Each year, the Centre hosts a Holocaust Memorial Lecture for anyone to join, and this year it has been co-organised with the Institute for the History of the German Jews (IGdJ) in Hamburg and will be given by Professor Atina Grossmann (Cooper Union, New York).

The lecture, entitled 'German Jews fleeing Nazi Persecution: Trauma, Privilege, and Adventure in the “Orient”, will examine the intensely ambivalent and paradoxical experiences, sensibilities, and emotions of bourgeois Jews who found refuge in Iran after 1933.

  • Date: Monday 31 January 2022
  • Time: 5.30pm