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Holocaust Memorial Day: Why the cry 'never again' is vastly more important today than ever before

Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to reflect on the horrific consequences of unchecked racial prejudice

By Adam Stephens

Holding Holocaust services in Northern Ireland may seem strange to some. After all, the Holocaust - the systematic destruction of European Jewry - occurred in far away places, with strange-sounding names (Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen). The Nazis never came to Northern Ireland and no Jews were murdered on Irish soil.

But it was not intended to be so. At Wannsee, in January 1942, Nazi leaders met to agree the blueprint of Hitler's solution to the Jewish question. In the gripping television reconstruction of the proceedings, Conspiracy, the principal architect of the genocide (played by Kenneth Branagh) declares the Nazi aim: to get rid of the Jews "from Belfast to Vladivostok".

It may have been Branagh's idea to include his native city in that chilling declaration of intent, but the quote attributed to his character, Heydrich, stands full square with the surviving evidence of that meeting.

At Wannsee, an audit was tabled of the continent's 11 million Jews, who were to be subjected to "the final solution of the European Jewish question". Four thousand Irish Jews were included in the list. For Estonia, the audit records "free of Jews" - by January 1942, the community there had already been deported, or exterminated.

Closer to home, there is no reason to believe that a triumphant Hitler would have respected southern Irish neutrality. More likely, he would have occupied the whole of the island (as it was a potential frontline against any future American invasion). And, if Hitler's forces had landed here, we know enough from what happened elsewhere in Europe to speculate on the likely fate of Ulster's Jewish community.

At first, in the confusion of the early days of occupation, a few community leaders would have been arrested and released only on payment of a huge ransom. The Belfast community's rabbi, Jacob Shachter, and its lay leader, Judge Fox, may well have been shot as an example of what would befall the community if it did not comply with the demands being made of it. Many potential leaders of resistance, Jewish or not, would have met the same fate.

Jews would have been made to identify themselves by wearing the yellow star in public at all times and severe restrictions would have been imposed on the general community against doing business with, or otherwise assisting, the Jewish population. Restaurants, places of entertainment and public buildings would have been placed out of bounds for Jews and Jewish-owned shops - such as the Model and Empire furniture shops in York Street - would have been daubed with Stars of David and swastikas to deter customers.

One or two streets, most likely those around the synagogue in Annesley Street, would then have been cordoned off and the non-Jews living there would have been ordered to leave. The 1,500 or so Jews from around the province (including the refugees at Millisle and the tiny Londonderry community) would then have been crammed in to take their place. Jewish property and businesses would have been confiscated and handed over to German officers and civil servants and to reward those collaborating with the regime.

On very little notice, the Jews would have been told to pack their remaining belongings and ordered on to trucks to take them the short journey to Belfast docks. Those living in neighbouring streets may have been forced to watch as the Annesley Street ghetto was emptied and the Northern Irish Jewish community brought to an end.

The Jews themselves would have been transported, at first, to transit camps in England before the final journey to the vast 'labour camps' in the east. (The Nazis preferred not to indulge in mass killing in the Western countries they occupied). Some of Ulster's Jews would have escaped the round-up and sought refuge from friends, or strangers, who would face dire punishment for harbouring them.

The example of what happened in other countries suggests many people would have been prepared to take the risk: children, in particular, would have been deposited in Aryan homes in the desperate hope that the Nazis would never catch up with them.

But, having investigated the available records of the Belfast Jewish community of that time, I can reveal there was no grand plan for escape. Instead, there would have been confusion, false hopes that things must get better and a natural instinct of families to stick together, rather than to disperse. The majority of the community would, therefore, have been ensnared in the Nazi trap.

That these events did not occur in Ulster - or elsewhere in the British Isles (apart from the Channel Islands) - is because the British Government and people stood firm in their resistance to Hitler, aided by tens of thousands of Irish volunteers, from north and south. That and the natural barrier that the English Channel posed to the German onslaught in 1940-41. It had nothing to do with any limit on the murderous intent of the Nazis.

Many in Northern Ireland were touched by the Holocaust, notwithstanding it happened to other people elsewhere. Many of the refugees who came here lost their entire families and few in the established Jewish community did not lose cousins and more distant relatives. The late Lord Molyneaux was among those British troops who liberated the camps and saw at first hand the horrors within.

Mass murder was not only directed against Jews, but gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, the disabled and political and Church-based opponents. They were all systematically killed and millions of civilians and prisoners of war were put to death.

In the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller: "First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist.

"Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me".

Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember those people, as well as victims of genocidal outrages in other parts of the world at different times. The aspiration of "never again" has already been trampled on since 1945 in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere. Today will be a time for that cry to be heard once again in a part of the world which was fortunate enough to be spared the Holocaust itself, but where - it must be said - the kind of murderous hatred which gave rise to it has not been absent, either, in recent times.

The rise of populist politics across the world, the presence of far-Right parties in parliaments across Europe and 'anti-Zionist' extremism emanating from the Left makes Holocaust commemoration in the 21st century more important than ever. According to the Community Security Trust, anti-Semitic incidents in the UK are at a record high, with more than 550 cases recorded in the UK during the first six months of last year. In Northern Ireland, we have seen the Jewish cemetery attacked, the synagogue vandalised and a spike in anti-Semitic abuse alongside attacks on other faith and ethnic minorities.

The Holocaust remains a powerful lesson to all of the dangers of unchecked prejudice and racism and what results from dehumanising fellow human beings.

Adam Stephens lives and works in London

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