Karen Sutton

Should We Keep Building Holocaust Memorials?

After 77 years, the reality of the Holocaust era is becoming harder and harder for people to grasp.  Indeed, the unspeakable horrors experienced by its victims coupled with the complicity of the bystanders and of course, the inconceivable cruelty of the perpetrators–the Germans and their collaborators–renders the whole subject somewhere between off-putting and loathsome.

So how and why are Holocaust Memorials still springing up in such remote places as Boise, Idaho as well as more obvious locations such as Berlin, where the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened in 2012.  Certainly, we can understand why Yad Vashem should maintain its role as the leading center of Holocaust education, teaching the events that led to the Shoah and its legacy, but in view of the genocides and human atrocities throughout the post-war world– Rwanda, Cambodia, Laos, Tibet and Croatia, why should Holocaust education remain critical in locations the world over?

Especially in America, the home of the Trail of Tears and the enslavement of African Americans, the question of memorializing the millions who were enslaved and murdered on European soil is strong. The U.S. government has subsidized the funding of the Holocaust Memorial Museum right on Monument Row in the nation’s capitol.  Should this be so? And should Holocaust centers continue to grow and expand despite the events of the nearly four generations since World War II?

Some Jews and non-Jews have suggested that the answer is resounding “no.” These individuals publicly shout their convictions  that Holocaust memorials should be taken down and “shoving Holocaust education down everyone’s throat” is counter-productive to the intent. They contend that the special place that the suffering of Jews occupies on the hierarchy of human victimization actually engenders resentment and even inspires resentment and jealousy.

I believe Holocaust centers continue to be an important teaching tool for present and future generations of all races and ethnicities.   This Jewish catastrophe needs to forever be  etched into public consciousness.

So, what is the lasting value of teaching the Holocaust and memorializing its victims?

By cherishing the memory of the Holocaust victims, we are giving meaning to their deaths.  The memorials enable us to see the stark reality of history.  Education and exhibits chronicling the events leading up to the Holocaust show today’s  generation that we must be vigilant to the warning signs and do everything in our power to prevent this from happening ever again anywhere in the world.

Perhaps no better illustration exists then the recent Auschwitz exhibit at New York’s Holocaust Museum entitled “Not Long ago or Far Away.”  In a series of chambers that almost seemed to shrink and darken by the moment, viewers confronted the historical truths of the past. Systematically, laid out before them were the horrors associated with each phase of the process from arrival to the death camp to selection. The processing of inmates and the immediate annihilation of most new arrivals were  depicted by voices who barked German commands. For those “lucky” enough to be spared gassing and sent to Auschwitz II, slave labor, starvation and disease awaited them— most likely a 3-month lifespan for all but a few inmates. That too was recorded by survivors in their own voices and tongues.

How that quaint little town of Oswiecim rose to become the ultimate industrial killing center is a story not just for Jewish or German ears.  It calls upon all of us to determine how and why that process was allowed to happen then.  And inherently, it is a clarion plea to examine how we conduct our own lives.

The painful experiences and personalized data depicted therein including identification of victim’s names was enough to anchor the horrors into public awareness and concern.

So too, does the Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, 2012, built in the cultural and political heart of Germany, Berlin, work to transfer powerful specific and personal information into the awareness and concern of everyday society.  Though not responsible for the murder of Jews and other so-called enemies of the Third Reich, many present-day Germans identify and own their historical reality as the perpetrators.  And the role of perpetrators, as well as bystanders and victims and even Righteous Gentiles are also not just stories for German and Jewish ears.  These must be told over and over to each of us as we confront present day evildoers.

As a final postscript to the importance of memorials— without memorials and monuments, though imperfect, who remembers anything?  As Hitler allegedly told his generals in 1939 “Who, after all, speaks today of the exterminations of the Armenians?”  The Fuhrer was referring to the massacre of Armenian civilians by the Turks in World War 1. When I was the national director for the Holocaust Institute of the Anti-Defamation League, 22 years ago, I was  besieged with requests by Romani and Sinti delegations who pleaded for Jewish assistance in building memorials to the attempted genocide of the so-called racially inferior gypsies. The lack of memorials to the Romani and Sinti, who lost about one million and a-half of its people during the Holocaust has unfortunately erased the fabric of these societies and the value of the lives they lived.

The ultimate reason for memorializing the Holocaust is to cherish and give perpetuity to the 6 million Jews and 5 million others who lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis.  By memorializing the victims, albeit collectively, we give substance and weight to those innocents who were murdered for all the different reasons.  It is a powerful reminder to fight against victimization of any kind, for ultimately it is our kind.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro University, in New York City.
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