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Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. As I write, the phrase is trending on Twitter, as is 'Alain de Botton'.

Yesterday I wrote about Alain de Botton’s views on how atheists might pick and mix the bits of religion that cut across cultures and are universally useful. One of the great things he pointed out is the calendar of character development reminders that religions provide. He suggested that we all benefit from such reminders; moral and spiritual check in points to help us reflect on who we are and how we are in the world. Well, today is precisely such a day. It’s explicitly secular, and explicitly serves the purpose of reminding us of how important it is to connect with our humanity.

Holocaust Memorial Day is important to me personally. My grandfather, Werner Lewinsky, was a Jewish doctor and dentist from East Berlin. He and his brother, Helmut, also a dentist, escaped Germany when Hitler came into power. In many ways they were very lucky. It might be an exaggeration to call them holocaust survivors, because they managed to get out of the way before the holocaust began.  Their story is part of the fabric of my identity, but it is, to me, a story, which has been passed down to me, rather than one I heard first-hand.

Photo by Joseph Lindley

I never met my grandfather, who died of a heart attack when my father was only two. I’ve seen photographs of him; when my Granny was alive I’d sometimes manage to get to her to tell me about what he was like, and a couple of Christmases ago my dad showed me a fascinating collection of documents – Werner’s alien’s passport, his permission slips to stay out beyond his curfew. Being a refugee from Nazi Germany was obviously not just challenging, it was a bureaucratic nightmare. My dad’s cousin Judith, Helmut’s daughter, has told me about her father, and through her I’ve come to understand more of our family’s heritage.

we must consider what reservoirs of resources are available to us to ensure that holocaust-like atrocities never happen again.

According to my assimilation of the stories I’ve inherited, my grandfather was a pragmatist. Culturally Jewish, but theologically flexible. He had his two sons both circumcised and christened, for good measure. Seems like a sensible enough thing to do, given the life experience he had. He didn’t live long enough to pass on his cultural, political, religious or philosophical reasoning to my dad in a direct way, but, via my dad, I inherited the raw ingredients of a world view which does exactly what I think Alain de Botton is trying to argue for. Taking the bits of one’s own cultural heritage, including the religious bits if they’re prominent, and reinterpreting them for the context and circumstances in which one lives.

So, on holocaust memorial day, I think we should all take a moment to reflect on where we come from, who we are, what our values are and how our actions reflect those values. Most importantly, we must consider what reservoirs of resources are available to us to ensure that holocaust-like atrocities never happen again.


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