The Power of Words

A reflection for Holocaust Memorial Day

Last Saturday, 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day was marked around the world. This year’s theme was ‘The Power of Words’, and it was suggested that the power of words is the moral response that they demand.


This made me think about a book I recently read, East West Street by Philippe Sand. It is a family memoir of Philippe Sand’s ancestors, who were Polish Jews. Interwoven into the narrative are the two stories of the lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, both too from Polish-Jewish descent, who coined the terms ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ respectively.

The story leads us all the way to the Nuremberg trials in November 1945, where both Lauterpacht and Lemkin fought for their categorisation of crime to be acknowledged. Lemkin argued that the worst thing a regime could do was to commit genocide, the killing of people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality. Lauterpacht, on the other hand, was more appalled by the seemingly arbitrary crimes committed against any civilian, no matter who they were.

We too may have our opinion whether one is worse than the other, but what I would like to suggest is that in some way both terms have the same power, the same effect. Whether it is genocide or crimes against humanity, both terms can be and indeed are used to hold people accountable for the crimes they have committed. Both terms demand a response, an owing up to what has been done, and a conviction of crimes that to many of us appear to be inhuman.

The Nuremberg trials were in that sense an extreme example of the power of words. Words, laws, were used to hold to account those who had committed gross atrocities in the years before. Words were used to speak justice, and in this case also to condemn. Also from our own experience we know the power words can have: words can hurt, and words can heal. Just as any judge can condemn or acquit by their words, so we too can condemn or commend others; we too can diminish or encourage, destroy or build up.

Words are at the heart of the Christian Gospel too. God spoke, and created. The Word was made flesh. Pilate condemned Jesus by his words, and Mary recognised the risen Christ by saying ‘Rabbouni’ through her tears.

So we too have a responsibility to use our words wisely, to recognise the power our words can have. Sometimes words too quickly spoken, ill-considered can have far-reaching consequences. We are called to speak words not only of truth and justice, but also of forgiveness and reconciliation. Not to speak too quickly, but equally not to be afraid to speak out when we must.

I’d like to finish this reflection by a Bertolt Brecht’s poem The Burning of the Books:

When the Regime commanded that books with harmful knowledge
Should be publicly burned and on all sides
Oxen were forced to drag cartloads of books
To the bonfires, a banished
Writer, one of the best, scanning the list of the Burned, was shocked to find that his
Books had been passed over. He rushed to his desk
On wings of wrath, and wrote a letter to those in power ,
Burn me! he wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth ? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you!
Burn me!

One thought on “The Power of Words

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