The Anish Kapoor candle flickered in the gloom of an Auschwitz night. Snow flurries pushed against the crowd, some carrying candles or bunches of flowers, making their way to the monument and the memories of those murdered at the most infamous of all the death camps.
Earlier, heads of state and delegation chiefs had lit candles in memory of the dead; now, it was the chance for individuals to pay their respects, remember a dead friend or say a prayer for a relative never met. The candles were an optimistic sight against the encroaching darkness, a visual metaphor to the creeping cloud of anti-Semitism across Europe.
It is truly shocking that just 70 years after the obscenities of the Holocaust, we are facing an echo of the Thirties. People who should know better are seeking to diminish the recent killings in Paris by trying to explain them as a reaction to Israeli foreign policy. They are wrong. No equivocation can get away from the fact that if people are selected for death on the basis of being Jewish or that children are seen as a legitimate target, then the heirs to Himmler and Eichmann are among us.
The lessons of Auschwitz are that society’s capacity for denial is greater than its capacity for empathy. How else can you explain the killings fields of Cambodia, the slaughter in Darfur or Rwanda? Most shocking of all for Europeans, and just a car journey from the gates of Auschwitz: the massacre at Srebrenica.
All those genocides were wicked and evil, but there is something numbing about the Holocaust. It’s the cold-blooded banality that makes it so sinister. Someone, miles away, worked out the train timetables of death; the exact amount of poison to kill the frail and the elderly; and someone thought it would be good for their corporate image to have their logo proudly displayed on the gas oven doors.
The Holocaust is different because the full panoply of an industrial state was used to murder its citizens, and committed by a nation that was the very centre of European civilisation.
The road to the death gates is made by uncertain and shuddering steps. Anti-Semitism, and indeed any form of racial discrimination, destroys society from within.
That is why we all must be constantly vigilant for its various forms. Any free and open society is vulnerable to the kind of attacks we saw in Paris, but this government is determined that our citizens can walk our streets without fear. The Kapoor candle was one of 70 manufactured to mark the years since liberation. It offers hope as well as light.
Sensible precautions are necessary, but ultimately shared hope and optimism are the best weapons to defeat the men of blood who seek to tear us apart.