Every year since 2001, Holocaust Memorial Day has been observed on 27 January – the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where over one million people died.
The day asks us to remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, as well as the millions of people killed due to Nazi persecution. It also honours the victims of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.
While the day is about remembering lives lost, it also offers us the chance to consider the future. The Holocaust is one of the greatest sins of the last century, and subsequent generations have a duty to ensure it never happens again.
Therefore, this Holocaust Memorial Day, we will reflect on the moments of humanity that somehow existed amid the horror, if only to remember to value compassion, generosity and selflessness above all else.
Like the Muslim Albanians who, in 1943, refused to comply with their German occupiers’ orders to turn over Jews who had sought refuge within the country. The Albanians not only provided sanctuary to the refugees – dressing them in traditional clothes, giving them Albanian names – their government issued many Jewish families with fake documentation that allowed them to blend in with the rest of the population.
Take the Pilkus family, Muslims who sheltered Johanna Neumann and her mother from the Nazis by telling people that they were relatives visiting from Germany.
‘They put their lives on the line to save us,’ Neumann told TIME last year. ‘If it had come out that we were Jews, the whole family would have been killed.’
Albania’s altruism was grounded in Besa, a code of honour meaning ‘to keep the promise’. Prior to the war, there were 200 Jews in the country. By its conclusion, the number had risen to over 2,000 thanks to the kindness of the Albanian people.
Stories like this were not unique. There’s the tale of Khaled Abdul Wahab, who sheltered around two dozen Jews in Tunisia. Or Abdol Hossein Sardari, an Iranian diplomat who helped thousands of Jews escape the Nazis by issuing them passports.
In France, Imam Si Kaddour ben Ghabrit provided shelter to as many as 1,700 French Jews in the Grande Mosque de Paris. After the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, they ordered French police to round up the 28,000 Jews in the city. Many of them were refugees from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, meaning they were housed in hostels with immigrants from a variety of places – including Algeria.
Ghabrit, who was both a French and Algerian national, spoke primarily in the Berber Tamazight dialect, meaning much of his communication could go undetected. When he caught wind of the Nazi order, the sweep had only just begun. To shield remaining Jews from capture, he sent a tract, written in Tamazight, to the Algerian residents of the immigrant hostels:
“Yesterday at dawn, the Jews of Paris were arrested. The old, the women, and the children. In exile like ourselves, workers like ourselves. They are our brothers. Their children are like our own children. The one who encounters one of his children must give that child shelter and protection for as long as misfortune – or sorrow – lasts.”
Thanks to this message, and the further efforts of Ghabrit and his fellow Algerians, around 1,700 Jews evaded capture and found shelter in the Grande Mosque. Once there, the imam and his congregation arranged passages to freedom and even forged birth certificates to hide Jewish children under Muslim identities.
All of these stories counter the narrative that religious groups are pitted against one another. A greater truth is echoed in the words of Ghabrit: ‘Their children are like our own children.’
Humanity is at its finest when one person cares for another, no matter who they are. By remembering this on Holocaust Memorial Day, and practicing it throughout our lives, we can tackle the discrimination and hatred that still exists in the world today.
Meaning we will avoid repeating the atrocities of the past.
Featured image credit: Daniel Foster via Flickr.