The high school in the town was new and high tech, something one often doesn’t see in the “toe” of the Italian “boot,” in the region of Calabria where I live — the region which is the poorest in all of Italy. It was also good to see that the school administration was forward thinking as evidenced by the effort made to provide students and community members with an opportunity to observe Holocaust Memorial Day, Europe’s January counterpart to the springtime observance of Yom HaShoah.
As an invited speaker I took my place on the dais, along with a Catholic priest and a professor of Islamic studies. As a student guitarist strummed the final cords of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” I was asked to make my presentation, the theme of which was that our reason for gathering is to acknowledge the factory killing of Europe’s Jews, to remember those who were murdered and to honor those who survived. I shared the story of a dear friend, now passed on, who, after she witnessed the murder of her entire family, escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto and joined the Polish resistance.
When it came time for the professor to speak, he turned away from the audience and spoke directly to me. Wagging his finger he said, “This day is for us to remember all genocides, especially the killing of the Palestinian people by Israelis.” He went on to say that it wasn’t Jews that he blamed, “I like Jews, I just don’t like Zionists!” At that he turned to the audience of high schoolers, parents and recently arrived refugees, and engaging the refugee group and students, led them in a “Nakba” chant, an Arabic word that means “ catastrophe,” referring to the establishment of the State of Israel.
In an article that appeared in the Jerusalem Post (Terra Incognita: The Holocaust: Between Dilution and Equivalence, 2016), journalist Seth J. Frantzman explores the phenomenon that what is unique about the Jewish Holocaust experience will soon be lost in the homogeneous pool of similar worldwide tragedies.
Several years ago I might have disputed Frantzman’s claim. After my experience at the high school, I’ve changed my mind. Throughout the United States the Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah is observed by the majority of Jewish synagogues and organizations and often other faiths and secular communities are invited to take part. Although I live in Italy I receive dozens of announcements about these memorials and I’ve noticed that in recent years, Frantzman’s warning has materialized. In past years I have attended Holocaust Memorial events where Jewish lives are described as “lost,” and Jewish men, women and children “perished” or “were killed.” In recent years “murdered” is less and less the verb of choice. And in recent weeks “Never Again” has become the cry of the post-Parkland survivors some of whom refer to the high school murders as a personal “Holocaust.”
This week there are Yom HaShoah observances that include victims of the Armenian and Rwandan genocides. Yet just this January the United Nationals General Assembly designated April 7 as the official International Day of Reflection on the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Last March 25 the world could have stood in solidarity and observed with Bengalis on Bengali Genocide Remembrance Day, while in the weeks to come one can observe Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day (April 24 ) as well as Cambodian Genocide Remembrance Day (May 20 ).
Surely these tragedies are all worth remembering and there are important lessons to learn from each. So why is it crucial that we not dilute the memory of the Holocaust?
In 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, 300 camp survivors attended the ceremony, most of whom were in their 80’s and 90’s. When the 75th commemoration is held in 2020, very few survivors will still be alive, let alone able to attend. As we lose the testimony of our eye witnesses who experienced Nazi atrocities first hand, we Jews must consider how we will maintain our memorial ceremonies. Will we seek out child survivors, such as those who were hidden or those who escaped via the Kindertransport? Will we validate childhood memories and consider child survivors as “real” Holocaust survivors? Will we listen to the children and grandchildren of camp survivors whose lives are forever affected by the horrors their parents and grandparents suffered? Or will we take the path of least resistance and homogenize the Jewish Holocaust experience with that of other worldwide tragedies?
As journalist Seth Frantzman warns, “In recent years there has been a tendency to revise the history of the Holocaust. In the West this takes the form of universalizing it and diluting its meaning.” My experience here in Italy tells me that Holocaust dilution, well-meaning though it may be, will diminish the Jewish Holocaust experience, marginalize survivors and their families, and eventually abbreviate the testimony of the one of a kind, unique and unfathomable horror visited upon six million European Jews.