Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January is a keystone of the national calendar. And who would argue that it shouldn’t be? What could be more important than to commemorate every year the unique atrocity of the Holocaust? Indeed, my impression is that most people think that Holocaust Memorial Day has been with us since the end of the war. But that’s far from the truth.


In fact, the first Holocaust Memorial Day was held in Britain in 2001. And it wasn’t until 2004 that the United Nations made a formal statement of commitment to commemorate the atrocity, recognising that the Holocaust “shook the foundations of modern civilisation” and was a crime of “unprecedented character and horror”. Similarly, it wasn’t until relatively recently that large-scale Holocaust museums became prevalent. The United States Holocaust Museum opened in Washington to the public in 1993 and Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened in 2005.

Wall of Remembrance, Holocaust Museum, Washington
Wall of Remembrance at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington. (Photo by Carol M Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Doesn’t it seem extraordinary that it took so long for these memorials to be created and for the world to come together in agreement to honour the memory of the dead on a Holocaust Memorial Day? Why, in particular, did it take the United Nations nearly 60 years to recognise the “unprecedented character and horror” of the Holocaust and agree to the creation of a special memorial day every year?

The liberation of Auschwitz

Our first clue as to the answer lies in the circumstances of the liberation of Auschwitz. This camp, more than any other, is symbolic of the Holocaust. Auschwitz is the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world. Around 1.1 million people were killed there – 1 million of them Jews. It’s no accident, therefore, that the date chosen for Holocaust Memorial Day in this country is the day that Auschwitz was liberated – 27 January.

But when Red Army soldiers of the 1st Ukrainian Front first approached Auschwitz in 1945 they did not appreciate the immense significance of the place. Ivan Martynushkin, a lieutenant in the Red Army, reached Auschwitz/Birkenau just hours after the camp had been secured by his comrades. “We had a feeling that we had done something good,” he says, “a very good deed, that we had somehow fulfilled our duty.”

The liberation of Auschwitz was not ignored in newspapers at the time, but it was given much less prominence than one would expect

But though he and his comrades had “feelings of compassion” for the Auschwitz survivors they encountered, they did not think that they were witnessing something special: “You have to understand the psychology of people who have been at war… I already had more than a year of direct combat experience behind me, and during that time I had seen camps – not like this one, but they were nevertheless smaller prison camps. I had seen towns being destroyed. I had seen the destruction of villages. I had seen the suffering of our own people. I had seen small children maimed. There was not one village which had not experienced this horror, this tragedy, these sufferings.”

More like this
Child survivors at Auschwitz
A group of child survivors behind a barbed wire fence at the Auschwitz concentration camp on the day of the camp’s liberation by the Red Army, 27 January 1945. (Photo by Alexander Vorontsov/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While the liberation of Auschwitz was not ignored in newspapers at the time, it was given much less prominence than one would expect from the perspective of today. The Pravda correspondent Boris Polevoi wrote an article that was published on 2 February, and the Jewish Chronicle in Britain followed up the story a few days later. However, there wasn’t the sense in the media that something truly astonishing had been uncovered at Auschwitz. That was partly because there had already been extensive coverage of the discovery of Majdanek camp six months before. And since Zyklon B had been used for killing at both Auschwitz and Majdanek, it was possible at first for the general public not to understand the unique significance of Auschwitz within the Nazi state.

Even more important for the way understanding of the Holocaust would develop, was the manner in which Polevoi in his Pravda article chose to interpret what had happened at Auschwitz. Following Marxist beliefs, Polevoi saw Auschwitz as the logical conclusion of capitalism – a giant factory where the workers were murdered when they were no longer useful. From this point onwards there would be a fissure between the communist and non-communist worlds over the historical significance of Auschwitz. In particular, the Soviets would seek to reduce the emphasis on Jewish suffering, often referring to the dead only as “victims of fascism”.

Rewriting history

All of the major Nazi death camps were now in territory controlled by the Red Army, and subsequently in postwar communist Poland. History was written – and often re-written – to put the communists centre stage in the struggle against Nazism. One Polish history of the Warsaw ghetto uprising stated that communist fighters had organised the revolt (when in fact it was orchestrated by the Jewish resistance). All criticism of the Soviet Union was banned and the true history was distorted to grotesque levels.

In the west the emphasis was on highlighting iconic events of the conflict like the Battle of Britain and D-Day. The role of the western Allies in acquiescing to Stalin’s rule of eastern Europe was inconvenient for any ‘heroic’ narrative of the war. The fact that the Polish had simply swapped the rule of one dictator, Adolf Hitler, for that of another, Josef Stalin, was especially embarrassing – not least because the catalyst for war, as far as the British and French were concerned, had been the Nazi invasion of Poland. In that context, the fact that around half of the victims of the Holocaust had been Polish, and Poland still remained under repressive rule, was a huge problem for the western Allies in their desire to present the war as a ‘total victory’.

Holocaust survivors

As for the survivors of the Holocaust, they moved in their hundreds of thousands away from their prewar homelands, with many settling in Israel and America. Until recently the conventional wisdom had been that large numbers of these survivors chose to keep quiet about their wartime suffering in an attempt to start afresh. But pioneering scholarly work over the last few years has exploded this ‘myth of silence’ by demonstrating that many survivors did talk about their experiences at the hands of the Nazis – though in some cases, while the survivors wanted to talk, their acquaintances and workmates were not that keen on listening.

At first glance one might think that the one country where survivors would be encouraged to speak about their suffering would be Israel. But the situation there was complex. While in April 1951 the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) announced the creation of a Holocaust memorial day, there was ambivalence among some Israelis about the behaviour of Holocaust survivors during the war. As Moshe Tavor, a soldier who fought in the Jewish Brigade in the British Army put it: “I’m a different type of person than those Jews who lived in small towns in Poland. As kids we’d pretend we were old Jewish heroes and fight mock wars. I feel very connected to the people who fought here [in Israel] 2,000 years ago, and I was less attached to the Jews who went like sheep to the slaughter – this I couldn’t understand.”

The desperately unfair taunt that Holocaust survivors went to their deaths like “sheep to the slaughter” was not uncommon – a number of survivors in Israel have told me personally that they heard such insults on their arrival after the war. The apparent pacifity of many of the survivors was in stark contrast to the heroic image that the new Israeli state wanted to project. This explains why the original declaration in 1951 creating Holocaust Memorial Day – in Hebrew ‘Yom Hashoah U’Mered HaGetaot’ – translates into English as ‘Holocaust and Ghetto revolt remembrance day’. The emphasis from the beginning was on ‘resistance’ as much as suffering.

It was the trial and eventual execution of Adolf Eichmann (who helped facilitate the mass deportation of Jews to the death camps) in Israel in 1961 that opened many people’s eyes to the true scale and horror of the Holocaust for the first time. In the courtroom survivors took centre stage as never before and – in contrast to the Nuremberg trials immediately after the end of the war – were able, one after another, to confront one of the key perpetrators directly. Most dramatically, Auschwitz survivor Yehiel De-Nur testified in front of Eichmann and then fainted.

Adolf Eichmann, 1961
Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Israel in 1961. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The meaning of ‘Holocaust’

The Eichmann trial also paved the way during the 1960s for an increased awareness of the word ‘Holocaust’. Though Israel’s declaration of independence had used the term as far back as 1948 to describe the Nazis’ campaign of murder against the Jews, it wasn’t in general use until much later. Dictionaries in the early 1960s still referred to a ‘Holocaust’ in non-specific terms as a ‘complete destruction’ or a ‘burnt sacrifice’. The adoption of the word by the general public to describe the mass murder of the Jews was gradual, but certainly by the time the successful NBC mini-series Holocaust was broadcast on American TV in 1978, the idea that this ‘unique’ crime deserved a ‘unique’ descriptive term had been generally accepted.

For 20 years after the war there wasn’t one descriptive word in general circulation for the crime

Of course, there are problems with the word ‘Holocaust’ – most obviously that there isn’t universal agreement about what precisely the word means. Some people use the term to describe only the extermination of the Jews, others to describe any act of genocide – for example the ‘Rwandan Holocaust’. But an even bigger difficulty, in my view, is that a narrow definition of ‘Holocaust’ can result in a misunderstanding of the history. While the extermination of the Jews was a unique crime at the epicentre of the Nazis’ plans to racially reshape Europe, you can’t comprehend Nazi thinking if you omit their potentially exterminatory intention towards other groups. This included the plan to destroy tens of millions of Slavs via the General Plan for the East, the ‘euthanasia’ actions against people with mental or physical disabilities, and the murder of countless Poles and gypsies in camps like Auschwitz.

However, none of that is a reason not to appreciate the benefits that a broad acceptance of the word has brought. Notwithstanding the definitional arguments, there is now general agreement that the word ‘Holocaust’ recognises the extermination of the Jews as a crime of singular horror and importance in the history of the world. In short, it’s important to remember that you can’t have a ‘Holocaust’ memorial day or a ‘Holocaust’ museum without the word ‘Holocaust’. This isn’t quite as obvious a statement as it first sounds. Because for 20 years after the war there wasn’t one descriptive word in general circulation for the crime. Labelling is important.

The collapse of communism

But it took one final historical upheaval to prepare the ground for the explosion of public awareness in the Holocaust. And that was the collapse of communism in eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For the first time, those who had experienced the Second World War and had lived behind the iron curtain could speak openly about the conflict. I remember, for example, meeting a former member of the Nazi killing squads who was living in Lithuania, and filming him for my series Nazis: A Warning from History in the mid-1990s. His testimony was shocking – but instructive – and would have been impossible to obtain if the communists had still been in power. Even though he had already served 20 years in a Gulag for his crimes, he had been forbidden by the communist authorities to talk about the war.

Man attacks Berlin Wall
9 November 1989: A young man in East Berlin attacks the Berlin Wall following news that the government would grant exit visas to anyone wishing to go to the west. Within hours, people were smashing sections of the wall – leading to the complete opening of the border within days. (Photo by Robert Wallis/Corbis via Getty Images)

And it wasn’t just people who were released from the restrictions of communism, it was places as well. For the first time it was possible to have free access not just to Auschwitz, but also the sites of other death camps, like Sobibor and Treblinka. Significantly, not until well after the fall of communism would the signage at the Auschwitz museum be changed to reflect in a proper manner the suffering of the Jews.

We tend to forget how effective repression can be in stifling and distorting historical knowledge. How much, for example, is known in this country about the appalling conflict between China and Japan that raged from 1937–45? Because the Chinese government controls access to the key archives and vital eyewitnesses, it is impossible to make a TV series about this war in the same way I made Nazis: A Warning from History. Not that I didn’t try. I filmed in China for my series Horror in the East 15 years ago, but it was so hard to get eyewitnesses to speak without fear of repercussions that I had to say to my bosses at the BBC that my planned six-part series should be shortened to two. Even when we approached Chinese eyewitnesses privately and offered them anonymity, away from the prying eyes of our government minder, the majority remained too frightened to speak.

The Chinese government’s attitude to the filming was governed by their own narrow political interests. They were happy that we interview survivors of the Nanking massacre, but refused to allow eyewitnesses from the murderous Japanese actions in the north of China to talk on camera. One night my government minder got drunk and told me why he thought this was. “The truth is,” he said, “we’re looking for the Japanese to build a big DVD factory around there.”

I filmed in the former Soviet Union back in the 1980s and experienced exactly the same self-serving attitude by the authorities towards history. And there’s no doubt that after the war this prevented a complete historical analysis of the actions of the Nazis on territory subsequently controlled by the Soviets.

However, it is also certainly the case that a movement towards commemorating the Holocaust in a more high-profile way had begun before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In America, though the Holocaust Memorial Museum did not open until 1993, the United States Congress had agreed as far back as 1980 that such a museum should be established. In Britain, the Holocaust Educational Trust, which does such important work, was formed in 1988. But despite all that, I can’t see how a United Nations consensus around Holocaust Memorial Day would have been possible if the Soviet Union still existed, and many of the dead were simply classed as “victims of fascism”.

The history of Holocaust memorial is thus an instructive one, reminding us that it can take many years before a consensus is formed about the importance of past events. And, if repressive regimes remain in place, sometimes this worldwide consensus can never happen at all.

Laurence Rees is a writer and broadcaster who has made numerous series for the BBC including Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’ (2005) and Nazis: A Warning from History (1997)


This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine