We have failed you. When the world found out about the atrocities committed at the hands of the Nazis, you were promised, “Never Again.” Trials were held. Testimony and records showed, without any shadow of a doubt, the brutality you had to endure and the evil that took the lives of so many of your friends and relatives. The international community rallied behind you and assured you that, in the words of Chief of Counsel for the United States at the International Military Tribunal Robert H. Jackson, “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.” Global organizations and international human rights documents were founded specifically to prevent what happened to you from ever happening to anyone else again.
And yet…time marched on. You told your stories, passed them down from generation to generation. At first, people listened intently to the horrors you faced, seemingly committing the details to memory. But somehow, at some point, people stopped paying attention. “Holocaust fatigue” is a term that was introduced into the lexicon for those of us involved in Holocaust education and activism. People were tired of hearing about the Holocaust, they said, and could we possibly find a way to make it more interesting so that it would capture the attention of the next generation? Perhaps we should have seen the writing on the wall.
You soldiered on. You continued to provide invaluable testimony and to share your stories with the world. Something was changing, though. Despite decades of teaching about the Holocaust, studies were showing that among young Americans, 63% did not know that six million Jews were murdered and 48% could not name a single concentration camp. More troubling was the fact that almost 20 percent of Millennials and Gen Zers in New York believed that the Jews caused the Holocaust. 49% of the respondents had witnessed Holocaust denial or distortion on social media or elsewhere online. The confluence of Holocaust ignorance, denial, distortion and antisemitism was no longer something that could be ignored, yet it remained seemingly hidden in plain sight for most of the world.
On October 7th, we witnessed the deadliest attack against the Jewish people in a single day since the Holocaust. This massacre was carried out by Hamas, a terrorist organization whose genocidal intentions were plainly stated in their founding documents. Hamas has never been shy about openly asserting their desire to rid the world of the Jewish people, just as Hitler did with his writings and speeches. What we have learned from history, what you have experienced firsthand, is that when a group with the intent and power to kill repeatedly calls for the extermination of an entire people, as a collective society we need to pay attention.
The world paid no attention during the Holocaust. Perhaps they believed that mass murder and genocide on that scale wasn’t possible. As a young German woman described after WWII, even though she had read Mein Kampf “like many of her upper-middle-class friends, she discounted the violence and antisemitism of the National Socialists as passing excesses which would soon disappear.” This is not to excuse those who stood by and did nothing while their neighbors were forced into ghettos and camps. It is instead meant to be an attempt to trace the trajectory of evil during the Holocaust. It started with words that many believed could never, or would never, come to pass.
After WW II, the world tried to make amends. The Nuremberg Trials, the Nuremberg Code, the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – the existence of these (and many other) international documents and organizations is inextricably tied with the global outrage over the crimes against humanity that occurred during the Holocaust. But 79 years after Auschwitz was liberated, as we commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must acknowledge our failure. We have failed to educate the next generation about the prevalence and dangers of antisemitism. We have failed to hold international organizations accountable for not protecting the rights of all people to live free from persecution due to their religious beliefs despite, for example, the United Nation’s explicit claim in their Resolution establishing January 27th as a day of international commemoration, “that the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one third of the Jewish people, along with countless members of other minorities, will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice.” You told us your stories. We failed to hear them.
We made a promise of “Never Again,” and we let you down. While those in Holocaust education often preach caution in making comparisons to the Holocaust, we can’t ignore the similarities between then and now. As Primo Levi said, “It happened, therefore it can happen again; this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.” We know better now. We know that words have power and that they lead to action. We know that this can lead to good or evil. We know that you will only be able to tell your stories for so long. We know that we have the privilege and responsibility to preserve your legacy and give voice to those who no longer have the ability to tell their stories. We know that THIS time when we promise “Never Again” we can’t afford to fail.
So, we will engage. We will educate. We will empower. We will use your stories and the lessons of the Holocaust to create ethical leaders dedicated to the promotion of justice, tolerance, equality and human dignity for all people. We will do this in your honor because you are Survivors. You survived so that we can thrive. Words have power, and they lead to action. These words, and the power and action that accompany them, are our promise to you.