George Washington University, Washington, D.C. —
My classmate and dear friend Emma Chevalier Trager-Lewis is a contributing author to this article. Emma and I met this fall at George Washington University in a Holocaust Memory class with Dr. Walter Reich, psychiatrist and former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has inspired us with the following quote attributed to Baal Shem Tov: “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” This piece is dedicated to Professor Reich for instilling us with hope and perseverance, motivating us to continue learning and acting to make the world a better place.
It isn’t easy keeping hope alive in a world that steadily darkens with shadows of the past. Persistent human rights abuses perpetrated by the resurgence of tyranny in our modern world have infused global citizens with fear—Russia’s abuses in the Ukraine, the Chinese Communist Party’s enslavement of Uyghurs, and Hamas’s unabated terror imparted on civilians in the Middle East. Some of us shun daily reports of the constant ‘depressing news.’ The loss of faith in democracy and prospects of world peace has caused many young adults to feel helpless, indifferent and remanded to their nuclear bubbles.
Young Jews are fairly sensitive to these threats, if only glancing some 77 years back to their ancestors’s histories. For many of this generation, keeping the legacy of the Shoah alive is a cornerstone of their Jewish education. But the words ‘never again’ ring empty as tragedy after tragedy consumes our present-day hope for a more humane world. Global efforts involved in keeping the Holocaust’s memory alive are imperative. But what good have they produced over the longer term? Even institutions established post-Holocaust and governments founded in democracy and humanitarianism, have themselves tuned out.
Emma and I connected on the topic of fragile hope in our Holocaust Memory class. Heart-wrenching tales of bravery found in Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, among others, led us to discuss how hope can be preserved in the most abominable conditions. While our generation was fortunate not to endure through this ruinous period and is unable to attest first-hand to Nazi horrors, readings and conversations with survivors lead us to understand that hope lies outside the self: “Survive and tell the world what they’re doing to us,” Rose Schindler’s father implored her. Indeed, now more than ever, the world must learn about Nazi brutality as Holocaust denial festers and signs of that dark history return. The famous quote by George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” rings louder each passing day.
Survivors of the Holocaust would frown upon the younger generations’ loss of hope and acquiescence. They would lose hope a second time. “The new generation,” Auschwitz survivor Gussie Zacks said to me, “is the only hope left.” She encouraged me to “learn, be active, and do something [about it].” But the tide of inaction remains strong as more and more young people stray away from public service and remain silent about humanitarian catastrophes. Silence begets indifference, and it is indifference that propels history’s toxic cycles. Central to this indifference epidemic is that young people lack a humanized understanding of mass atrocity.
At the Permanent Exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a quote reads, “Six million Jews weren’t murdered; there was one murder six million times.” Holocaust survivor Abel Herzberg speaks on the inability to grasp the magnitude of such number, thereby reducing humanity to abstract statistics. Ignoring the human face and its individuality is tempting while attempting to to digest a man-made atrocity of monstrous proportions. But that defeats the purpose of studying the Shoah in the first place: Ignoring the individual strips victims of their dignity. We then forget that one person’s will to survive is an emboldened act of hope. Viewing each individual victim as a human being is, unfortunately, far beyond the grasp of recent generations.
Today, the world is faced again with the scourge of violence leading to the displacement of seven million people from the Middle East and North/Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2022 alone, their crossing of the Mediterranean has taken the lives of more than 1,200 displaced persons. These victims are among millions of innocent civilians fleeing war-ravaged countries seeking asylum to survive. As Warsan Shire writes in her poem, Home, “No one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land.” Seeing war-torn refugees as a human mass rather than individual human beings makes it easier to turn a blind eye on their plight. While the Holocaust and some recent refugee crises may not compare in circumstance, scale and outcomes, global indifference towards the millions of refugees today is a reverberating reminder of how powerful governments turned their backs on European Jews during World War II.
The debut of Ken Burns’s new documentary, The US and the Holocaust, illustrates the consequences of a people abandoned in diaspora by a deeply anti-Semitic West. The film opens with Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus, as the Statue of Liberty closes her doors to thousands of Jewish refugees while declaring, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Although America did admit some 180,000 to 220,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945, Burns’ riveting account leaves us contemplating the hypocrisy of a government that could have done far more than it did— even to the saving of just one more life. “To save one life is as if saving an entire world” the Talmud prescribes.
The film claims that an anti-Semitic public shaped Roosevelt’s politics, and that failing to open more doors for European Jews fleeing the Holocaust was not entirely within his realm of influence. While the film claims that the US accepted more refugees than any other country, and should be praised for its efforts, FDR hardly gets a free-out-of-jail card for failing to persuade congress against its stingy policy of lowering immigration quotas. “When human dignity is in jeopardy,” Elie Wiesel notably said, “national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.” For a nation founded on holding “to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance,” American policy throughout the Holocaust prioritized public interest and political favorability. Such conduct contributed to bigotry and persecution alike.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, global citizens held high hopes for safety, morality, and peace. The United Nations was established as the mecca for human rights and the prevention of future mass atrocity. Despite international actors signing on to this commitment, the promise has long been broken: The UN, including former colonial powers, and the United States, continue to turn a blind eye to modern day refugee crises. They remain silent about the horrid conditions of asylum seekers in camps across Europe such as those on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Samos. Insufficient action or lack thereof is not a choice; these governments can do far more. Their silence instills significant doubt in their leadership.
In the summer of 2021, Emma spent a month volunteering at Mavrovouni refugee camp in Lesvos, the largest refugee camp in Europe. Before setting foot there, Emma was convinced that United Nations’ staff would be physically present throughout Mavrovouni, to ensure that families maintain their unconditional right to “dignity” as delineated in the 1945 UN Charter. Emma discovered an opposite reality: Over a month of working long hours in this open-air prison, Emma must have seen at most two UN staff on the ground. The lack of attention, care and compassion for individuals in the Mavrovouni camp deteriorated Emma’s faith in the UN’s efforts.
Many students of our generation have expressed a desire to disconnect with all things political and humanitarian. “It’s all a charade,” we say, “Look at what’s happening in our world! No progress, it’s all downhill from here.” And while these sentiments can easily extinguish hope, we thank Professor Reich for reigniting our passions to continue advocating against hate and intolerance. Personally, I’m unable to study the Holocaust’s memory without pondering what it is that I can do to prevent the possibility of future human catastrophe. Similarly, despite Emma’s disappointment in the UN’s conduct, she is now all the more compelled to continue helping asylum seekers around the world.
For members of the new generation fortunate enough to live in a relatively peaceful corner of the globe, it’s tempting to remain confined to our nuclear lives. 77 years later, survivor testimonies that press “please, for your children, never again,” are going unheard.
Our generation’s faith in democratic governments and human rights organizations may be diminished, but hopes for a better world must never fade. Each survivor of human atrocity deserves high praise for his/her audacious courage to persevere and look beyond the self, clinging onto hope: Simone Veil did not survive Auschwitz and dedicate her life to the advancement of Women’s Rights for us to give up hope and accept an unjust status-quo. Otto Frank did not grapple with the grief of his entire family’s murder for us to accept the oppression of innocent families seeking refuge.
Hateful ideologies permeate our global environment fostering ignorance, indifference and self-interest. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing [Holocaust victims] a second time.” Remembrance and hope are virtuous, but acting is mandatory.