Sat, 15 June 2024

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By Sir Nicolas Bevan
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On Holocaust Memorial Day we must learn the lessons of the past and honour the lives lost


3 min read

In 1960 Adolph Eichmann, often described as the architect of the Holocaust, was captured by Israeli forces in Argentina where he fled after the war.

He should match all of our preconceived ideas of evil – he oversaw the final solution, the Nazi euphemism for the murder of every Jew, everywhere. As the persecution and murder of the Jews intensified, he was keen that their plans be ramped up, that a process be put in place to expediate the desecration of European Jewry. He was part of the creation of the concept of industrial murder – gas chambers and crematoria that could hold hundreds at a time, that would ensure that by the end of the Second World War six million Jewish men, women and children had been murdered.

After his arrest he was put on trial for his crimes in the Holocaust at a purpose-built courtroom in Jerusalem. People from all over the world came and watched the proceedings. They read the news coverage to see their first glimpse of a real-life evil monster.

We remember where unchecked hatred can lead and the role we can all play in doing something about it

And yet, when the time finally came, all they saw was a normal looking middle-aged man, one you would walk past every day in the street and not think twice over. An ordinary man, who made extraordinary choices, whose decisions tore families and communities apart and shook the world - and continue to do so almost 80 years later.

Hannah Arendt, a philosopher, who was reporting on the trial for the New York Times described Eichmann as an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was “neither perverted nor sadistic”, but “terrifyingly normal”. Arendt was confronted with the question of whether it’s possible for someone to do evil things without being evil. She came to the conclusion that despite the best efforts of the prosecution, everyone could see that the man before them was not a monster, but rather it would be more difficult not to suspect that he was a clown.

Arendt famously dubbed Eichmann’s characteristics as “the banality of evil”, claiming that Eichmann was not inherently evil, rather a shallow, clueless, yes man who joined the Nazi Party not because of its ideology but instead in search for a purpose.

And yet, what he did was unthinkable, its impact unparalleled.

It is easy to think of the perpetrators of the Holocaust as monsters, evil, not like us. But the sad reality is that they were not so different. They had families, they listened to music, they were human. Hard though it is to contemplate, the murder of six million Jewish men, women and children was not executed by monsters and evil villains, but rather by ordinary people.

It was ordinary people who smashed the windows of Jewish owned shops, who helped to round up the Jews so that they could be deported to places where they would be murdered, who drove the trains, who worked in the concentration camps.

And of course, those six million Jewish men, women and children who were murdered were themselves ordinary. They were not always victims. They were once mothers and fathers; brothers and sisters; friends. They worked, they cooked, they had lives. They loved and they were loved.

So today, on Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember the choices that ordinary people made and the impact that those choices had.

We remember where unchecked hatred can lead and the role we can all play in doing something about it.

And, above all, we remember those Jewish men, women and children whose ordinary lives were ripped from them, whose choices were taken away, who were forced to become victims. On Holocaust Memorial Day we honour their memory.


Karen Pollock CBE, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust.

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