The 27th January was chosen as Holocaust Memorial Day as it was that day in 1945 that the Russians liberated Auschwitz – Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps which is not too far from Krakow in Poland. Approximately 1.1 million men, women and children were murdered there, over 90% of them being Jewish. It was only then that the depth and horror of the Nazi atrocities was understood. I cannot imagine what it was like for those liberators and the realisation of what people had been made to endure must have stayed with them forever. I have been to visit Auschwitz when I was with a group of Christians and Jews visiting Poland to reflect on the absence of Jews in a country that had a strong and thriving Jewish community. The visit to the death camp was chilling and sobering. I had always imagined that a place like Auschwitz would have a sense of evil around it but in fact it was beyond evil and the horrors of it hard to believe –but the proof was there before our very eyes. And these were ordinary people – the ones murdered, the ones carrying out the murders and all the others who made the functioning of such places possible.
HMD was set up after 46 governments signed a declaration in Stockholm on 27th January 2000. committing those present to preserve the memory of those killed in the holocaust. It’s purpose is that we should never forget the depths of that barbarity in the hope that such things would not happen again. And yet they have. There have been subsequent genocides – Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur and also the violence that is recognised as ethnic cleansing perpetrated against groups such as the Uyghurs in China and the Rohingya in Myanmar. The world has not learned the lessons of the Holocaust. Rather it would seem that the Holocaust showed just how cruel human beings can be to one another and unleashed that potential into the world – a bit like Pandora’s box.
The theme of this year’s HMD is Ordinary People. Yes, ordinary people can perpetrate great horrors, ordinary people can stand by and do nothing, but ordinary people can also do extraordinary things in surviving genocides, telling their stories and working for justice. Here in Scotland we have a woman who was not Jewish but who died in Auschwitz and as far as we know is the only Scot recognised as one of the Righteous of the Nations in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Her name is Jane Haining. She was born in 1897on a farm on the outskirts of a small village in Dumfriesshire called Dunscore. She was educated at Dumfries Academy where she was awarded 41 prizes and became Dux of the school in her last year. After school she came to Glasgow, took a business course and worked in the clerical department of J&P Coates in Paisley. Jane was always interested in young people, she was a devoted member of the Church of Scotland and in 1932 responded to an advert for the post of matron in the Girls’ Home at the Scottish Mission to the Jews school in Budapest. She was responsible for about 35 girl boarders and tried to give them a safe and happy environment while away from home. She loved the work and her charges and feared for those of them who were Jewish in the light of the anti-Jewish laws being passed by Hitler in Germany. When Germany annexed Austria in 1935 more refugee Jewish children were housed at the mission. The second world war started while Jane was on leave in Scotland but she returned to her post and refused to leave it even after the Nazis invaded Hungary. Shortly after that Jane was arrested and transported to Auschwitz, where she died on17th July 1944.
For the past 30 years Hungary has organised a national essay competition to reflect on the impact of the life of Jane Haining. The top three winners come to Scotland each year, visit Dunscore and other places associated with her life and work. Yet she is until recently little known in Scotland, certainly not the way she is known in Hungary. We aim to rectify that and I am working as part of a group organised by the Council of Christians and Jews to organise something similar to that carried out in Hungary. I hope we will be successful and that this ordinary woman who did an extraordinary thing will give us hope and inspiration to also stand up for those who are marginalised and discriminated against.