‘It’s the most important Holocaust Memorial Day I can remember’ - Museums Association

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‘It’s the most important Holocaust Memorial Day I can remember’

How global events have shaped how Holocaust-related museums are commemorating the day this year
Holocaust
Visitors at a Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 event at Manchester Jewish Museum
Visitors at a Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 event at Manchester Jewish Museum Chris Payne

Holocaust Memorial Day, which will mark the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January, has taken on a new urgency for many this year.

In recent months, following the 7 October massacre of Israeli citizens by Hamas, and Israel’s subsequent war on Gaza, which has killed almost 26,000 Palestinians, there has been a significant rise in antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry around the world, as well as growing hatred and division between communities.

This turbulent context has shaped how Holocaust-related museums in the UK plan to mark the event, which will take the "fragility of freedom" as its theme this year.

As part of its ongoing Creative Activists project, Manchester Jewish Museum has enlisted a group of young people aged 18 to 24 to co-curate Holocaust stories in its collections and develop their own creative responses.

The participants were recruited last October and their time at the museum has coincided with the terrible events in Israel and Gaza.

“It’s something that’s been there with them all the way through,” says the museum’s director, Gareth Redston. “You can’t help but draw links to the current situation.”

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The museum is running an open day on Sunday 28 January where people of all ages and backgrounds can meet the creative activists and explore their interventions, as well as viewing the pop-up touring exhibition I Say British, You Say Jewish, which explores contemporary antisemitism.

The pop-up exhibition, I Say British, You Say Jewish, is currently on display at Manchester Jewish Museum Image courtesy Manchester Jewish Museum

One of the museum's priorities this year is to try and repair some of the damage to community relations that has been caused by events abroad. The institution located on Cheetham Hill Road, a vibrant multicultural area with a 50% Muslim population, with whom it has always worked closely.

Before the new year, with people in local Jewish and Muslim communities directly affected by the conflict, the subject felt too raw for the museum to address. Tensions have also been intensified by divisive misinformation spread on social media.

“There is a lot of really unhelpful, black and white messaging in both communities,” says Redston. “But one of the things about museums is we are a place to talk in a more nuanced way. We can admit that these are complicated narratives.

“With a new year, it feels like people are ready to start thinking about the next step, what we can do to heal. The conflict is not going away but we have to learn to live with each other. How do we get back to the good relationship that we previously prided ourselves on?”

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The museum sees Holocaust Memorial Day as an opportunity to begin this work. “It feels even more important this year as an opportunity to unite people who have been so divided,” says Redston.

The museum is also focused on combatting Holocaust denial, which has worsened in the current conflict and may intensify even further as the genocide moves beyond living memory.

“There’s far more visible and open antisemitism, and diminishment of the severity and impact of the Holocaust,” says Redston.

“It certainly feels like the most important Holocaust Memorial Day that I can remember in terms of reminding people of what the Jewish community has been through and where hatred can lead.”

Other Holocaust-related institutions have been collecting evidence of contemporary antisemitism, include the Wiener Library in London, which has accessioned a metal sign that previously stood outside the library and was vandalised with antisemitic graffiti last year during protests against the war in Gaza.

Hope and resilience

In Huddersfield, the Holocaust Centre North has used this year’s commemoration event to re-emphasise the message of its community of survivors, who founded the centre in the hope that the “world would become more compassionate”, says director Alessandro Bucci.

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The fact that the centre is focused on survivors’ stories means that “the awfulness of [the Holocaust] also coexists with a message of hope and resilience”, he says.

Although there are contemporary resonances around hatred and trauma, Holocaust-related institutions feel it is important that the atrocity should not be used as a tool to comment on current geopolitical issues. “It shouldn’t be instrumentalised to make one point or another,” says Bucci.

The institution’s Holocaust Memorial Day event, which took place earlier this week, was a reminder of the importance of keeping the stories of survivors alive as their number diminishes, he says.

The day featured talks and performances by refugees and people who have lived through genocide, including a speaker who participated in the reconciliation that efforts following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which marks its 30th anniversary this year.

“There was a poignant element where all the survivors who have worked with us were recognised by lighting a candle. This is something we have done before but it’s the 79th anniversary and time is not getting any closer,” says Bucci.

“It was symbolic of the question we are asking ourselves – how do we do Holocaust education in an era without survivors?”

In a world torn apart by conflict and division, this question feels more important than ever.

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