International Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed annually on January 27, holds a complex significance. Not only does it serve as a commemoration for the victims of the most tragic event in the 20th century, but it also unveils the distinct perspectives that the non-Jewish world and the Jewish community have toward the Holocaust. This date was not decided by the Jewish world but by the UN General Assembly, choosing to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army. The State of Israel, on the other hand, uses a date closer to the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and those two events give some clues about how both dates are perceived.
Every January 27 I see on social media posts making the day about “The Heroic” Red Army and how they are the real heroes and deserve celebration, leaving the conversation about genocide and antisemitism behind. Another group exploits the day to promote Holocaust denial. This ranges from blatant denial, with memes mocking the victims, to Holocaust inversion, equating the suffering of Palestinians to a so-called ‘New Holocaust’ orchestrated by the alleged evil Zionists. However, despite the bad things the date brings, I choose to direct attention toward those who approach the study of the Holocaust with a good intention, the one of learning, respecting the victims and understanding.
The non-Jewish world’s exploration of the Holocaust, drawing universal lessons from this profound historical event, is not only normal but also essential. The Holocaust was one of the most impactful events of recent history, to the point that concepts such as Genocide or War Crimes had to be introduced to our languages to describe it. That was the message of multiple Shoah survivors and historians, such as Elie Wiesel, to go and study what elements of the Holocaust can be extracted and studied to promote the creation of tools, such as laws or educational programs, to avoid it. In the words of Primo Levi:
“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.“
I firmly believe that Holocaust studies should yield pragmatic outcomes, actively contributing to the prevention of genocide globally. Professor Yehuda Bauer, in his brilliant lecture about comparing other genocides to the Holocaust, explains that there are elements that can be seen in every genocide in history, while other elements are particular to the genocide of the Jews, making it particularly unique. Those universal elements should be studied as elements that can alert of genocidal narratives, while the particular elements should be studied in the context of 2000 years of antisemitism that concluded in the Holocaust, making it not only a genocide but the culmination of one of the oldest and most “successful” forms of hatred.
For the Jewish people, the Holocaust is not a distant event relegated to history books; it is the shattering of our ancestral civilization. It’s the event that many times determined the structure of our families and where we were born, the pivotal moment that determined how the Jewish world and institutions have structured itself for the next 500 years. It was not only The Holocaust, It was our Shoah: Our catastrophe, our calamity, our destruction.
In the grand timeline of Jewish history, spanning over 3000 years, the Shoah remains a recent and impactful chapter with far-reaching consequences visible throughout the Jewish world. For most Jews, the Shoah remains a personal event. For us, the Shoah is not only a matter of numbers, rhetoric and events, but a series of faces, stories, places and experiences. We should not forget that it was the generation of our grandfathers the one who almost got exterminated while our parents’ generation took on the profound responsibility to investigate, study, process, understand, and write what happened for the rest of the world. Unfortunately, our generation witnesses the passing of survivors even as the ominous shadow of rising antisemitism looms.
The Shoah permeated every facet of Judaism, ushering in irrevocable transformations. It changed the institutional structure of the Jewish communities, making Jewish safety and survival the central goal of our organization. It also changed our perception of history and the diaspora, our relation with the non-Jewish world, and with Jewish identity itself. All of this, combined with the fact that Jews have created one of the most special forms of collective memory which is a responsibility to see historical events as if one were present (The commandment of feeling the liberation of Egypt as if one was being liberated) makes it even more impactful.
The use of two terms, “The Holocaust” and “the Shoah,” underscores the dual nature of the event, revealing two distinct perceptions. One universal, as a rupture in all of humanity and a reminder and warning of how evil the human being can be, and a more personal perspective, one of the biggest tragedies of a people, that I believe can only be fully understood by those who suffered it.
To those outside the Jewish community, I extend an invitation to approach this historical event with a sense of responsibility, extracting as many lessons as possible. To see it in the context of 2000 years of antisemitism, that has revived with the October 7th pogrom and the rise of antisemitism globally. Employ critical thinking to grasp its significance for humankind. But I also invite you to be respectful of the Jewish people on this date and on everything related to the Holocaust, It’s not merely an exploration of an old wound with a healed scar; it’s an examination of an infected wound that was recently reopened, one that we, as a community, still carry.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long
night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw
transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the
desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and
turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live
as long as God Himself.
(Never Shall I Forget from Night by Elie Wiesel.)