A beautiful play was performed in Belfast’s City Hall this week to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Entitled the Suitcase the play was written by Belfast woman Jane Coyle. It intertwines the story of a Belfast Jewish family with the experience of the genocide against Jews in Europe a mere 80 years ago.
The event was free, open to the public and the audience was a mix of commentators, activists, public representatives, students, citizens old and young. And the play was very well received, the acting being particularly touching and warm.
The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year is “Don’t stand by”. This is drawn from the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel “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.” It is hard to argue with those words and to be reminded them in the context of memory is essential. We need to engage with the horror of violation, its extent, impact, how and why it happened. No one should draw a line under that past.
But it needs to be more than a reminder. Not being silent is not simply being sad watching Schindlers List. We become voyeurs of historic horror and pain if we do not engage with the issues of violation and remedy in a real and applied sense. And in a way that confronts our own prejudice and experience.
For the past two weeks, a few metres away from where the play was held, 96 families have been brought to the courts at Laganside to reviews on inquests into the deaths of their loved ones. The issues range from extra judicial killings, the use of death squads, the use of torture and government direction of gross human rights violations. Killings by non-state actors including republicans are also being examined.
Many of those families, such as those of Gerard Slane and Francis Rowntree, come from West Belfast. Others have travelled from across the North and border counties. In case after case families sat as they heard the state, accused of violations that led to the deaths of their loved ones, obfuscate, cover up and pretend that they were actually the victims of administrative failure.
It is good that the inquest system is examining these cases. It is good that the hearings are being done by the local courts in an open way. However, the ongoing cover up has more than a little resonance with the bad old days of our own conflict. The state tactics are about ensuring the violations are not named and responsibility is never assumed. Drawing a Line. And that is an assault on the dignity of the families, and the memory of their loved ones.
If Memorial Day is to be real and relevant these are the very issues that need to be grappled with, and born witness to. Anything else is a modern day “standing by”.