The particular and the universal lessons of the Holocaust
It has become a common understanding that the greatest challenge surrounding the Holocaust as we approach 80 years after the event is how to keep the memory alive and relevant as survivors pass away and new generations emerge.
Capturing the recollections of survivors, as the Spielberg Foundation has been doing, and bringing Holocaust education to schools, as the Anti-Defamation League has been doing as part of its Echoes & Reflections program (a partnership of USC Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem) as well as other expert organizations, are two of the most important approaches in meeting this immense challenge.
At the same time, for those who may know something about those terrible events but who see them through the prism of today’s polarized politics, an additional challenge lies in finding the proper balance between particularism and universalism regarding the Shoah.
Particularism has two elements: First, the rightful focusing on the Jews as the main target and victims of the Nazi onslaught. And second, focusing on the Shoah among the history of genocides as a unique event despite sharing commonalities with other genocides.
Universalism points to the need not to ignore other victims, such as the Roma and people from the LGBTQ+ community who also were likewise targeted by the Nazis, and other genocides, for the Holocaust was not alone in the targeting of communities – as we saw in Armenia, Rwanda and Bosnia.
At times there appears to arise a degree of conflict between those who focus on the Jewish aspects of the tragedy and those who look to broader elements. It need not be so.
Remembering the Holocaust is vital on many levels – starting with the need to respect the lives of six million Jews, including the one and a half million children who were barbarically murdered. There is a moral imperative to respect what they went through and think of what was lost to humanity by the premature deaths of those millions.
And they were not targeted for anything they did or didn’t do but simply because they were identified as Jewish. Which immediately demands that we pay attention to how it came to pass that the whole people were marked for slaughter simply because of who they were. And it also demands that we pay attention to both modern-day manifestations of the age-old hatreds and antisemitism that fueled that genocide, as well as attempts to deny and distort the history, in order to prevent it or something like it from happening again.
In this respect, it makes sense to focus on the particular elements of the Holocaust, its focus on Jews and what makes it unique even among the sorry history of genocides that stains human history.
The Holocaust is unique for coming from what was once presumed to be one of the highest cultured societies in the world. It is unique in the scope of the genocide and its intent to eliminate the entire Jewish people. It is unique in the fact that Jews were attacked whether they lived in Axis countries or those fighting the Axis. And it’s unique in that the Holocaust was a product of centuries of antisemitism, in which Jews were dehumanized, setting the stage for extermination.
Having said that, the need to learn from the Shoah – to make sure that hate does not end up becoming genocide – requires room to learn broader lessons for society for the murder of the Jews: How a civilized group could so quickly turn to barbarism, how the law and democracy can be perverted to provide for evil purposes, how hate that may start out on a limited framework can spread to overtake a nation.
In this regard, there needs to be recognition both of the fact that Jews were not the only the victims of the Nazis, and that hate, more broadly speaking, must be addressed in order to fully learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
The bottom line is that there is nothing fundamentally in contradiction in focusing both on the particular elements of the Shoah and on the universal.
In pressing for a universal understanding, however, one must never ignore the fact that the vast majority of those murdered were Jews, and that the Jewish people alone were intended for complete destruction. And in pressing for a focus on the Jewish tragic experience, one must also not ignore that others perished as well and that genocide historically is not limited to the murder of Jews.