Holocaust Memorial Day 

Welcome back to Beyond’s Revision Blog. This entry focuses on Holocaust Memorial Day and explores genocide and discrimination.

‘Ordinary People’ is the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2023.

We’ll be looking at what happened in the years 1940-45. Considering Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem ‘First They Came’. You’ll learn how laws became steadily more discriminatory in Germany and about Kristallnacht. 

Discover how Jewish people were rounded up to live in thousands of ghettos. You’ll have the chance to evaluate a primary source and consider the impact of world opinion. There’s also the opportunity to think about the global response to potential genocide. 

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What is Holocaust Memorial Day?

Holocaust Memorial Day, on 27 January, is a way to remember the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other minorities murdered under Nazi rule. It is also a time to remember past genocides such as the Armenian genocide and more recent genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur and Rwanda.

The 27th January is the anniversary of the liberation of the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Holocaust is an indelible stain on human history, it is essential to remember the horrors of genocide so that it can be fought in the present. Even in 2023 there is still prejudice and hatred that must be challenged. Holocaust Memorial Day is a way to honour those who lost their lives during Nazi persecution, the survivors and all those whose lives were forever altered. 

What was the Holocaust? 

The Holocaust was a genocide (mass killing) in which approximately 6 million Jewish people (alongside Romani, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the mentally and physically disabled) were killed by members of the Nazi Regime and their followers. This happened in the years 1940 – 1945.

The word holocaust is used to refer to the genocide of the Jewish people because it is from the Greek words holos (whole) and kaustos (burnt). Originally it referred to a Jewish sacrifice in which the sacrifice was completely burned. This refers to the way that the Jewish people were exterminated. The Holocaust is also referred to as the Shoah in Hebrew which means The Catastrophe.

Pastor Niemöller’s Poem 

Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem expresses the importance of standing up for those that are unjustly persecuted. 

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me

What happened during Nazi Germany?

During the 1930s the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. Over the period between 1933 and 1939 the Nazi Party gradually changed the rules about how members of the Jewish faith were allowed to live in Germany. The Jewish people had never been fully accepted into German society but in the years leading up to the Second World War things became steadily worse.

In 1933 the Nazi Party created the wording of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which was passed on 7 April 1933. It stipulated that only those of Aryan (German) descent, without Jewish parents or grandparents, could be employed in the civil service. Jewish businesses were actively boycotted by German nationals.

At the seventh annual Nazi Party Rally, held in Nuremberg from 10–16 September 1935, several laws were passed:  

  • Jewish people were forbidden to marry or have relationships with Germans. 
  • German women under 45 were prevented from working for or in a Jewish household. 
  • Jewish families could not fly the German flag either but could fly ‘Jewish colours’. 

Anyone who broke the laws could be sent to prison. Another law passed on the 15th September, 1935 was that only those with German blood could be citizens. Any person whose ancestry was half Jewish or more was not to be given citizenship. They could then not vote.


Things became harder and harder for the Jewish people living in Germany. Many fled to other countries when they had the chance. Laws became steadily more discriminatory and on November 9 -10, 1938 an organised riot against the Jewish people took place across the country. 

This night is referred to as Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass. On this night Jewish businesses were broken into and looted and synagogues were burned to the ground. Many Germans didn’t agree with the actions of the government and police. When the German public complained they were told that complaints of this type were disloyal and unpatriotic.

Kristallnacht Denounced Globally

Kristallnacht and the actions of the German government were publicly denounced by many of the world’s governments: 

  • The Chilean government expressed concern over Germany’s treatment of its Jewish citizens
  • The British government approved the Kindertransport program for refugee children from Germany and several governments severed their diplomatic ties with Germany. 
  • The United States recalled its ambassador (but did not break off diplomatic relations).

Kristallnacht marked a turning point in relations between Nazi Germany and the rest of the world, but was it too little too late? Was everything being done that could be done?

The Ghettos

After Germany invaded Poland in 1939 things became even worse for the Jewish people, living in Germany and Austria but for those living in any of the German occupied countries.

Jewish people were rounded up and shipped to live in thousands of ghettos (segregated living areas for the Jewish people). Many of the ghettos were closed off from the rest of European society and the Jewish people living within these areas were not allowed out. 

Nutrition and sanitation were very poor and gathering for school or religious worship was banned.

Many Jewish people had already died by the time the Nazis began to ‘liquidise’ the ghettos in 1941-42. Their plan was to send all the remaining inhabitants to extermination and labour camp. The Nazis eventually wanted to eradicate all Jewish people from Europe – they called this ‘The Final Solution’.

End of the War

By the time the war had ended and Germany had surrendered to the Allies, over six million Jewish people had died. 

Almost as many people from other ‘undesirable’ groups had been killed as well. These included the mentally and physically disabled, communists, Soviet POWs and homosexuals.

The Impact of Standing By

Elie Wiesel was a boy when he and his family were taken by the Nazis. He is a Holocaust survivor and has written powerfully about the impact of bystanders:

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Ordinary People’. Ordinary people can range from perpetrators, bystanders to rescuers. Genocide is facilitated by ordinary people. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust writes: ‘Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group’.  

Ordinary people today can make decisions to challenge prejudice, to speak out against identity-based persecution and stand up to hatred. It is the only way to prevent history from repeating itself. 

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