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Taking stock of Holocaust awareness for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

We need creative approaches to engage the next generation, thanks to events fading into history, antisemitism surging, and the rise in extremism of all kinds
Soviet soldiers liberating Auschwitz concentration camp, on December 31, 1944. (Wikipedia)
Soviet soldiers liberating Auschwitz concentration camp, on December 31, 1944. (Wikipedia)

Soon after the reunification of Germany, the Anti-Defamation League organized a leadership mission to a united Germany. One of our most significant meetings was with Dr. Rita Süssmuth, then-head of the Bundestag. One member of our group asked her about teaching young Germans about the Holocaust.

Her answer is even more relevant today than it was then.

She said that one cannot talk about that horror in the same way to the young generation as speaking to their parents or grandparents. They are too far removed from the events of World War II. What is necessary, she reasoned, are creative approaches to make the history relevant and visceral.

Süssmuth’s comment comes to mind as we observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, which is also the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. There is no doubt that more than 80 years after World War II, a variety of factors are coming together posing challenges to Holocaust memory, but all the news in this arena is not bad. It is a good time to take stock.

The negatives are abundant. First, as is often discussed, a major instrument for educating young people – the living testimony of survivors – is diminishing rapidly as most survivors are gone. One hears over and over again that a survivor speaking about his or her experience before a classroom or school assembly has awakened the students to what the Holocaust was all about and why they should care about it.

Second, the statistics on the lack of knowledge about even the basics of the Holocaust are concerning. A Pew survey revealed that more than 80 percent of Americans know that it was an attempt at the annihilation of Jews, but far fewer have any idea as to how Hitler came to power and how the horrors came to pass.

The Claims Conference surveyed younger Americans and found that 63% of millennials and Gen-X-ers did not know that six million Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust.

And ADL’s Global 100 Survey several years ago found that only 54% of people worldwide had ever heard of the Holocaust and 32% thought it was greatly exaggerated or a myth.

Third, the meaning of the Holocaust is undermined seemingly every day by its trivialization through inappropriate analogies. In the hyper-political and polarized world we live in, exacerbated by social media, it seems that everything one doesn’t like is compared to the Nazis or the Shoah.

And, of course, one of the most egregious comparisons – often meant to undermine the significance of Holocaust memory – is equating Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazi treatment of Jews. In other words, so the warped logic goes: the world had its Holocaust, now “the Jews have their own.”

Fourth, Holocaust denial continues to have a life of its own and has found a particular lifeline as extreme right groups look for respectability. There is no doubt that historically the association of the murder of six million Jews with Nazism and fascism has been the major obstacle for decades for such groups to gain legitimacy in political circles. Denying or at least diminishing the Holocaust can open a pathway for revival for extreme right groups who until now have been largely excluded from a role in democratic societies.

This is a powerful combination of factors. There is, however, the other side, where a good deal of progress has been made in Holocaust awareness and acknowledgement.

In the early days, it was Jews and Israelis who were the leaders in educating about the Holocaust. Israel, as a home for the largest number of survivors, invested in the matter with Yad VashemYom HaShoah, and the Eichmann trial. Over the last few decades, however, we have seen growing involvement of other governments and broader societies in this project. This is a good development.

So, the UN, often seen as hostile to the Jewish people because of its many anti-Israel stances, has incorporated two important Holocaust-related elements into its programming and policies.

The first is that of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which produces annual programs, statements and recollections and keeps the attention of the international community on this genocide for one day.

The second is a resolution passed just recently which denounces Holocaust denial as against UN values.

Another cross-country effort, initiated by Sweden, is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which, in effect, builds on the UN initiative, to implement educational processes about the Holocaust in participating countries. Recently, its participants met in Malmo, Sweden to discuss practical ways to move forward on Holocaust education and combatting antisemitism.

And, of course, many Holocaust museums have cropped up across the US and Europe, the most important the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which attracts large numbers of visitors, most of whom are not Jewish.

And then there are the many efforts by non-governmental organizations, two of particular significance being the Shoah Foundation’s vital interview project of survivors and ADL’s Echoes and Reflections public school education curriculum and program on the Shoah.

These and many others try to live up to Süssmuth’s plea for creativity in connecting young people to the Shoah. Holocaust knowledge and awareness are clearly more important than ever because of the passage of time, the surge of antisemitism, the loss of shame about antisemitism as the Holocaust is more distant, and the rise in extremism of all kinds and the efforts to legitimize fascism.

Examples are the use of artifacts, photographs and testimony to encourage students to present their own questions about those events; real time questions and responses from Holocaust survivors using hours of pre-recorded video footage; and the use of local US news sources during the period of Nazi rule and how events were seen from an American perspective. Holocaust awareness and acknowledgement are clearly more important today than ever.

Factors that make this so include the passage of time, the loss of shame about antisemitism as the Holocaust is more distant, the rise in extremism of all kinds, and efforts to legitimize fascism.

Let us recommit to these efforts as we observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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