We must race to save the stories of holocaust survivors

For organisations such as mine, the purpose of which is to give the persecuted a voice, the documentation of stories from those who have suffered at the hands of authoritarian regimes is paramount. We do this, not just for the purposes of justice, but in the spirit of documenting history and making sure such crimes committed against people are never repeated. 

There is nothing more important than personal testimony when it comes to conveying the true horror of living through such times. First-hand accounts of historical events have a unique power to inspire, to anger, to hurt and to educate. To be able to look a victim in the eye, even down the lens of a camera, as they relate their suffering, forces us to see and experience the past rather than just study it.

Which brings me to the ultimate horror of the last century: the Holocaust, and the importance of preserving the witness statements of the survivors.

As a British Jew, my understanding of the events that led to the Shoah, and then the horror itself, have been a significant part of my life. They have shaped me and guided my politics. 

Given its unique evil, the Holocaust cannot be allowed to become just another historical event. It should serve as a constant warning against the politics of hate. 

To do that, however, we need to preserve the testimonies of its survivors. As their numbers sadly but inevitably dwindle, we must focus on this more than ever. 

I have seen the power of such testimonies first hand. On a trip to Auschwitz, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), I watched young people try to absorb the machinery of death as they heard from a survivor. 

We cried together and tried to make sense of the unimaginable. Those youngsters will never forget that moment and will share it with their families and friends forever – as will I.

Countless young people have had similar experiences listening to Sir Ben Helfgott, Kitty Hart-Moxon or any of the other survivors who have tirelessly spent the past 70 years touring schools and speaking about what they have been through. 

There are many powerful organisations dedicated to this work, such as the HET, which has been working with survivors to teach the full human story of the Holocaust since the late 1980s. But, with time running out, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. 

We should be doing more to encourage smaller-scale, creative projects such as the commissioning of portraits of seven Holocaust survivors by the Prince of Wales which will be put on public display at The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. Such exhibitions will make it far easier for future generations to see the survivors – and by extension the victims – as flesh-and-blood people, not just names in a textbook. 

We should also do what we can to make the most of new technology. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the HET and Yad Vashem, we have both video and audio recordings from survivors and their families. However, there is still more that can be done to enhance these digital archives before it is too late.

The loss of our living link to the Holocaust is a moment of profound sadness, but we must do all we can now to make sure future generations never forget them. 

Ruth Smeeth is Chief Executive of Index on Censorship

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