‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’ – Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl’s words hold a powerful truth: even in the face of extreme adversity, we retain the ability to choose how we respond. This is especially poignant in the context of Frankl’s own experiences: the Austrian-born Holocaust survivor was incarcerated for three years in four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz.
He experienced firsthand the depths of human suffering inflicted by Nazi cruelty. He saw possessions stolen, freedoms obliterated, and human dignity trampled upon. Yet, amidst the darkness, he also observed acts of extraordinary resilience: prisoners sharing their meagre rations, offering words of comfort to each other, choosing hope over despair, and dignity over humiliation.
His statement is informed by this experience and reflects an awareness of human capacity for both cruelty and resilience. The ability to find meaning and purpose amid unimaginable suffering was crucial for Frankl’s own survival and would become a central plank of his approach to life after the Holocaust. By asserting that even the most oppressive circumstances cannot take away our inner freedom, Frankl offers hope to those enduring persecution, like the Uyghur Muslims facing persecution in China and the victims of the ongoing genocide in Darfur.
But I also see his words as a challenge to those of us who live with relative freedom. They implore us to consider our own responsibility in standing up for freedom. We can choose to speak out and take a stand against injustice or to look the other way.
History reminds us that remaining silent in the face of oppression can embolden the oppressors; the suffering of millions under Nazi brutality is a stark reminder of this. In a world often focused on individual pursuits, indifference is the easy option, especially when the pain of others feels far removed. However, true freedom necessitates actively opposing injustice wherever it may arise.
Our theme for this Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) – The Fragility of Freedom – compels us to recognise that freedom is a delicate gift that demands constant vigilance.
The dismantling of personal freedoms is never an overnight event, but a calculated process.
The Nazis were deliberate in their use of propaganda to manipulate public opinion, fan the flames of hatred, and scapegoat specific groups.
The Jews bore the brunt of this malicious campaign, their persecution rooted in centuries of antisemitism. In Rwanda, Hutu nationalist radio stations flooded the airwaves with hateful rhetoric, calling Tutsis ‘cockroaches’ and ‘snakes’, chipping away at their human dignity and paving the way for mass murder in 1994.
Millions of people around the world today are fighting for their freedoms. Whether it is freedom of speech, movement, religion, or association, these liberties are the bedrock of a just and successful society. Each generation bears the responsibility of upholding the values of freedom and handing them to the next.
That is why we must reflect on the lessons of the past and defend our freedoms at every opportunity. Standing up for freedom demands more than mere remembrance. It requires active engagement, a refusal to be bystanders in the face of injustice. It means speaking out against discrimination, challenging prejudice wherever it rears its ugly head, and defending the rights of all, regardless of who they are. Standing up for freedom means defending human dignity.
The ongoing violence taking place in Israel and Palestine is appalling and the loss of civilian life is heart-breaking. The impact is being felt here with incidents of both antisemitism and Islamophobia at an all-time high. Extremists have seized on the conflict, blaming and committing hate crimes against these two faith communities right here in the UK. Now, more than ever, is a critically important time to strengthen our resolve to stand up for the freedom of each other, not just our own.
As co-founder of Nisa-Nashim (meaning women in Arabic and Hebrew), a Jewish Muslim women’s network, we build relationships between communities and stand together against hatred.
I believe passionately in the freedom to live a Jewish, a Muslim or any other life free from prejudice or harm. Well aware that no individual can change things alone; I know it requires all of us to stand up for freedom for all people everywhere.
Freedom is not a free lunch. It comes at a price, and that price is eternal vigilance.
- Laura Marks CBE, is chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
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