Have you heard about Operation Reinhard? It was the most destructive phase of the Holocaust – yet most of us have never heard of it. Why is this?
Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps, the three death facilities of Operation Reinhard remain relatively obscure in public consciousness. That is why we write.
This week eighty years ago, saw the commencement of a secretive plan in World War II to destroy Poland’s Jews. In just over two years, around 1.7 million people – 98 percent of Poland’s Jewish community – were murdered, cementing Operation Reinhard as the deadliest chapter of the Holocaust.
So, as we mark another Holocaust anniversary, we are still faced with the uncomfortable truth that we have failed to learn the painful, but necessary lessons, from atrocities of the past.
The Holocaust exemplifies unchecked hatred in its most extreme form. Yet there are people today who deny or make fun of the Holocaust, dismissing it as nothing but a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy.
But Operation Reinhard, carried out at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor death camps in south-eastern Poland, compels us to remain vigilant. To constantly look around for indications of prejudice, hatred and intolerance developing, to confront them wherever they arise, to stop them before they grow.
Like all acts of genocide, Operation Reinhard had a root and a beginning. Such events never happen in isolation, or without a chance to stop them; but instead, they rely on people being complicit, people not asking the difficult questions, or making difficult choices for fear of the consequences.
We have to ask ourselves whether we, as a society, are falling into this dangerous trap of not doing enough. One only needs to look at the news and world events around us – such as the Uyghur Muslims in China calling for help from the international community – to recognise that civilisation is fragile and we need to protect it.
It is well documented that Uyghur Muslims have been singled out by the Chinese communist party, and it remains our duty to continue to bring attention to this, and fight for justice for those who cannot do so for themselves.
Human rights groups have recently been urging countries and corporations to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing over China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. Whether any form of boycott is successful or not, it is our collective responsibility to be asking the difficult questions, to draw attention to these matters.
On this painful anniversary, we are left asking ourselves whether a concerted effort to do just that, fight for those who do not have a voice, could have helped to save the lives of nearly two million Polish Jews. The events that occurred 80 years ago demonstrate the painful consequences of acting too late – of not questioning those dangerous early signs.
The following are the thoughts of Joan Salter MBE, child Holocaust survivor: “The 80th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide of Europe’s Jews offers me another opportunity to reflect on the murder of my relatives at Belzec and Treblinka.
“In 2005, I visited the two camps and there, alone, I walked through the monuments commemorating the murdered Jews. And back in England, I visited the graves of my parents and told them I had honoured our past and my heritage. I scattered the earth gathered from Poland over their graves.
“Post-war efforts to make sense of the brutality and inhumanity of the Holocaust, often explained it as an aberration which could be circumvented through education. The growing resurrection of the same old antisemitic tropes, the willingness to accept illogical conspiracy theories and the growth of Jew hatred is a frightening echo of the events of the 1930s.”
On every anniversary, we think about those who were murdered for who they were, of the millions of lives that will never be the same – and we say never again.
Ultimately, it is easier said than done, and to make good on those words will require those in a position to do so, to make the difficult choices. Whether they are about a sporting event or buying products with supply chains that indicate forced labour in Xinjiang province, we have a chance now to do better.
On every anniversary, I, Olivia, think of my grandfather who came to the UK from Poland in the early 20th century, leaving behind many family members who would later be murdered in the Holocaust. He would not have imagined that one day his granddaughter would one day lead an organisation dedicated to Holocaust commemoration and education.
So, as we remember the Jews brutally murdered at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, what gives us solace is knowing that there is a chance to do better, to ensure that others do not bear that same fate. We must seize that opportunity.