January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a date designated by the United Nations for the global community to commemorate Jews and other victims of the horrific crimes committed by the Nazis and their collaborators.
It is an important annual event, with one question that supersedes all others: how do we avoid having the Holocaust be seen as ancient history?
While there are other challenges regarding the Holocaust in 2023, such as Holocaust denial, loose Holocaust analogies, and the overall lack of knowledge about the genocide against the Jews and other targeted groups, the biggest challenge is to make the murder of six million Jews almost 80 years ago a real and relevant event with the emotional impact on today’s generations, even as years pass, and survivors pass away.
In other words, why should people care about something that happened so long ago, and how do we go about getting people to care?
There are several approaches that come to mind.
First, though antisemitism is surging around the world and in the United States, there is an opportunity, without making inappropriate analogies, to depict how the harmful antisemitic tropes we contend with today are of the exact same kind used by those responsible for the systematic murder of six million Jews.
The sinister evil of Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, convinced the German people not merely to dislike Jews, but to defend themselves against the wicked and global power of the Jews who were deemed responsible for everything that was plaguing Germany.
Antisemitism shares characteristics with other forms of prejudice, and what starts with the Jews rarely ends with the Jews. The Nazi period illuminates for today’s society what makes antisemitism unique and particularly dangerous.
When Jews are portrayed as having excessive, evil and even supernatural powers, as we saw with the Pittsburgh synagogue murderer and with the extremism of Kanye West, that opens a path to justifying malice and even violence against Jews. In this respect, the Holocaust speaks to these dangers in the most profound way possible. While no one is suggesting that the current accusations and conspiracy theories against the Jewish people will lead to another Holocaust, the immediacy of the dangers makes the Holocaust relevant and imperative for the world to understand.
Second, I remember well a conversation during an ADL mission to Germany in the early 90s. Rita Sussmuth, the then-head of the German Bundestag, was asked how Germany teaches the next generation about the Holocaust. Her response was that we must teach each generation in a different way since for the younger generations it seems like so long ago. What is needed, she argued, were more creative approaches to Holocaust education.
If that were so 30 years ago, how much more so now when survivors are mostly gone and younger students and learners are now eighty years removed from events of World War II?
Many organizations today are thankfully working in this space, most offering free resources to educators. There are over 150 local Holocaust education centers, museums, and memorials in the United States alone. One important tactic encouraged by these organizations is to individualize history by translating statistics into personal stories. These stories personalize and humanize the experiences of both those who endured the Holocaust and those who risked their own lives to rescue and help others.
The stories of rescuers in particular bring with them the critical message of hope that the actions of individuals against hate can and do make a difference, while also making it clear that, unfortunately, these were rare examples of human courage.
One of the common characteristics of those who saved Jews was modesty about what they had done and a simple moral code – “I was taught to help people in trouble” – that could have great appeal to younger generations looking for a mission and purpose in a more and more perilous world.
These lessons also encourage students to speak out when they see injustice and to be good citizens. The sobering fact that millions across Europe either collaborated with the Nazi genocide or stood by while it was happening, was a direct result of centuries of indoctrination about how supposedly evil Jews were. For today’s generations, there is no better education than that which re-enforces the importance of combating stereotypes about Jews or other marginalized peoples and putting forth both effort and energy to correct wrongs they witness in their own communities.
The lessons for today in dealing with hate are profound and urgent. In this regard, there is a bipartisan proposal before Congress known as the Holocaust Education and Antisemitism Act (HEAL Act), which will elevate the federal role in not only promoting Holocaust education in the states but in trying to develop a more verifiable and consistently effective program that can achieve the goal of making such education relevant to the lives of current and future students.
The passage of this legislation is a meaningful and respectful way of commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day and will serve as a model for other nations, particularly those in Europe, to follow suit.
We begin 2023 witnessing old hatreds surfacing around the world. The theme of “Never Again” should not merely be a slogan, but a living promise and commitment by all to ensure the horrors of the Holocaust and the generations of hatred that led to the greatest catastrophe in recorded history are never repeated.