Recently, I’ve watched two films that really gave me pause for thought about World War 2, particularly around the impact of exposure to fanaticism in childhood.
During 2019’s Black History Month, our Race Equality Network screened Amma Asante’s Where Hands Touch, the story of a biracial teenage girl struggling for survival in Nazi Germany. One of the most striking scenes portrayed this teenage girl seeking to belong, as all teenagers wish to, which in this case meant trying to join in with the local activities of the Hitler Youth. A similar picture is shown in a much quirkier, and disconcerting, fashion, in Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit. The film is centered around a 10-year-old boy who is nicknamed JoJo Rabbit because he doesn’t kill a rabbit when peer pressured to do so at Hitler Youth camp. JoJo has an imaginary friend – Adolf Hitler – his internal picture of the person who would be the greatest to have as a friend!
Both these films imaginatively and differently look at World War 2 and the situation as it arose in Germany through the eyes of children. How they try and make sense of it. How they still find joy and friendship. What they accept as normal because they have no other context or experience. How adults work to protect them and don’t tell or explain to all the bad and scary stuff – partly because the adults themselves can’t fully comprehend it. In these gaps, children find their own ways of coping.
The way that fascism was almost passively accepted as a way of life in these films scared me to my core. It reminded me of the need to be constantly vigilant, even in a democracy, because totalitarian regimes don’t spring out of just nowhere. Oppression creeps into people’s everyday lives, sometimes undetected. Those of us that are comfortable and safe may not feel the need to challenge it. Going unchecked, these films show us where it can lead.
The 27th January marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. It has become Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a day marked internationally in a world scarred by genocide and encourages remembrance of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
The Holocaust threatened the fabric of civilisation and genocide must still be resisted every day. Our world often feels fragile and vulnerable and we cannot be complacent. Even in the UK, prejudice and the language of hatred must be challenged by us all. At King’s we recognise this and continue working with KCLSU on the It Stops Here campaign to ensure our campus is safe and respectful.
Holocaust Memorial Day is for everyone. Each year across the UK, thousands of people come together to learn more about the past and take action to create a safer future. We know they learn more, empathise more and do .
I thank Amma Asante and Taika Waititi for providing me with a new means of reflection to remind me to bear witness for the victims of genocide and to honour the survivors and all those whose lives were changed beyond recognition.