Messages from a college student on Holocaust Remembrance Day

A memorial to murdered Jews, namely children, at a mass grave site in a forest just outside the Polish town of Tarnow. (Sabrina Soffer)

My fascination with the subject of the Holocaust began just around the time I started middle school. For my Bat Mitzvah, my parents suggested that I visit Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, to acquaint myself with one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history. The experience raised unabated questions about human behavior, psychology, and the banality of evil. Thereafter, I couldn’t help engrossing myself in memoir after memoir, history books, documentary films, and survivors’ testimonies; this ultimately led me to research projects, travels across Europe, and most emotionally heart wrenching—meeting with survivors locally and abroad. 

My rich conversations with survivors made me realize that my research work was but a mere basis. I only began to understand this when I asked survivor Gussie Zaks (1926-2018) what message she had for the new generation. She said to me, “My story is never finished. Tell your friends and family what they did to us so they learn—you see, I drive my car everywhere, wherever they call me [to tell my story]. I appreciate life everyday; this is how I learn now—be active, do something.”

Some eighty years after its catastrophic events, the Holocaust may appear as ancient history: It’s done with, it could never happen again—not in this modern and civilized society. But you’d be wrong: Antisemitism is ubiquitous and, like a fast-spreading epidemic, continues to mutate into dangerous new forms. 

Jew-hatred is but a new phenomenon, and all can agree that it’s intensifying in its evil, racist canards. Indeed, like any form of racism that festers and plagues society with its hatred, consequences can be lethal: We can easily trace Jewish history through the tragedies of the Spanish inquisition, the Pogroms, and the Holocaust. Is there a new tragedy to be inscribed in future Jewish history books?

The rhetoric is numbing: ‘Never again,’ ‘history repeats itself,’ blah, blah, blah…We know it, heard it all before and pledge to combat it. What we do and how we do it, however, can spell the difference between catastrophe or survival.

There are things some of you may do that may not quite equate to the type of antisemitism we’re used to. Some of you may not realize that Hitler was democratically elected but yet recognize that Nazi-era antisemitism was blatant, aggressive, and ultra-extreme. There are, however, several distorted and deceptive practices that you may not acknowledge as antisemitism due to their morally-hinged and sly implementation. 

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” I’ve heard some of my peers say. Indeed, it’s alarming. Contemporary antisemitism may not appear as threatening but is in fact more insidious, disguised as moral practice. In turn, it boosts the heinous premises and legitimacy of Jew-hatred, ultimately heightening the growing concerns of Jewish communities around the world. 

Revisionism: Distortion and Denial

One such practice is Holocaust revisionism advanced by the pool of Holocaust deniers and distortionists: those questioning the certainty of and minimizing the gravity of one of the most abominable atrocities in Jewish—let alone human—history. This gives conspiracy theorists like Nick Fuentes and the Goyim Defense League platforms to disseminate virulent lies and assault those they deride for their religion or ethnicity—and the practice isn’t limited to Jews alone.

Then there are the kinds of Kanye West who claim that antisemites, like Hitler and his notorious Nazi regime, are “good.” As you scroll through social media or listen to famed influencers, what message are you getting? Can you really believe such nonsense?

Anti-Zionism: The New Strain of Antisemitism

One other popular practice involves those of you ascribing to anti-Zionism. Rather cynically, those partaking in this ideology-turned-practice are sometimes Jews themselves—referred to often as “the good kind of Jew.” What does that mean? This is the nice and tame anti-Zionist Jew, the ‘woke’ Jew who claims to prize ‘morality’ and ‘virtue.’ This is the very same Jew who ignores historical memory and takes his or her autonomy for granted. This distinction between the “bad Zionist” and the “good Jew” is a concept attributed to former Israeli Knesset Member and renowned author, Dr. Einat Wilf, in her most recent work Why We Should All be Zionists.

What some of you “good Jews” fail to understand is that your very lives would be fraught with peril if not for the Zionist movement that led to the creation of the State of Israel. Your actions are possibly rooted in ignorance of the term itself: To be sure, Zionism is defined as the self-determination of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland, Israel. Anti-Zionism thus calls for the eradication of the state of Israel and, with that, the erasure of its Jewish populace. 

Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) most notably said, “I can live as a Jew outside Israel, but not without Israel.” It is Zionism that has pinned Jewish safety in the international community, even in the face of staunch opposition by the UN and anti-Israel organizations such as BDS or Amnesty International. Zionism is what guarantees shelter to Jews around the world when antisemitism jeopardizes their identity, dignity, and safety—just ask the thousands of French Jews who resettled in Israel in the past several years. Zionism is that which enables us to critique the Jewish homeland—with all of its imperfections—but without delegitimizing its existence.

When have you heard that France, Germany, or Russia should cease to exist or surrender their autonomy to some other country? Is Israel any different? Why would you disavow your own right to safety and self-determination? Why renounce the power to engage in Tikkun Olam—to improve and repair the world? By disavowing Zionism, one opens the door to those who seek to weaken and deprive Jews of their autonomy. 

Silence and Apathy

As for the Jews who remain silent: You hinder your own progress and the world’s. During Passover, I’d forgive your innocence or incompetence because you may just be that fourth child who ‘doesn’t know how to ask.’ But keeping your mouth shut can be destructive. Failing to ask means failing to learn, revealing the unforgivable symptom of apathy. Apathy leads to silence, silence to passive citizenship, and passive citizenship to an epidemic of indifference.

“Indifference,” said Elie Wiesel, “is the opposite of love.” Indifference can be worse than hatred because it can easily morph into a subconscious and deeply-embedded hatred. Worse, those who are indifferent, while staying complacent, are most susceptible to being swayed by the masses on social media or other mediums of misinformation. 

Today, global citizens are overwhelmed by revisionist conspiracies and spurious anti-Zionism on social media, politics, college campuses, and beyond. So, as opposed to indifference, choose LOVE—the love to learn. The volition to transform incompetence into knowledge, and the resilience to convert insecurity into courage, reflects the language, life, and legacy of Theodore Herzl: “When you will it, it is no dream.”

To Present and Future Generations

Finally, to the change makers of today and tomorrow—my Jewish peers on college campuses and highschool students: Learn all you can about Jewish history and your family’s roots, ask the deep questions, and engage with your peers to broaden your perspective despite your disagreement. This is namely the What. As for the How, one must develop a love for wisdom or, in Hebrew, ‘חוכמה’ “Chockhma.” Etymologically, the word translates to ‘the strength of what,’ composed by ‘כוח’ “Coackh” or strength, and ‘מה’ “Ma” or “what.” It is the continuous application of knowledge, as opposed to its reservation for some particular end.

Knowledge is not only a means to an end, but an end in itself. Knowledge, especially when transformed into disciplined wisdom, is the highest power: It often intersects with personal stories, events and other areas of expertise to connect with others, propose suggestions and devise solutions to contemporary societal ills. The process can become extremely fulfilling, manifesting “freedom by means of freedom,” as written by German Romantic Freidrich Schiller, an admired philosopher by the non-violent intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany, the White Rose

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel also reveres those righteous gentiles, evident by Yad Vashem’s ‘The Righteous Among the Nations’ commemorative sites which honor non-Jews who risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust. As liberated citizens of the global community, I encourage all of you to LOVE life as Gussie Zaks did, and compound that love with a sense of responsibility for humanity as the righteous among the nations did when Jews were imperiled. 

As you commemorate this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I urge you to reflect upon your morals and the messages I’ve addressed. If anything, follow in Gussie’s footsteps: Learn, be active, and do something—even if just one thing—to make the world a better place.

About the Author
Sabrina Soffer is an undergraduate student at the George Washington University where she is double majoring in Philosophy & Public Affairs and Judaic Studies. She is the former commissioner of the George Washington University's Special Presidential Task Force to Combat Antisemitism and the Vice President of Chabad George Washington. Most recently, Sabrina was a speaker at the American March for Israel in Washington D.C. She is also the author of My Mother's Mirror: A Generational Journey of Resilience & Self-Discovery, a dual-perspective memoir that offers creative, narrative-based tools based on the USC EDGE Center award-winning Self-Ex Guide, authored by Sabrina and her mother.
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