Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. International Holocaust Remembrance Day always leaves me in a haze of mixed feelings, as pride, bitterness, joy, and sorrow all cloud my consciousness. This morning, the bitterness took center stage and was complemented by anger as the university I work at issued out a university-wide email asking everyone to join in their prayers for those affected by the recent death of former NBA star Kobe Bryant. A few other memos followed. There was no mention of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
And just like that, the little ember of fury burning inside my heart burst into flames as I watched the millions of victims of the Holocaust take not a back seat, but no seat, in the face of the death of a famous athlete. It quickly occurred to me that the Holocaust isn’t in the early stages of slipping from the memories of those unaffected by it; the memory of the Holocaust is already terminal. But what do we have, if not our memory?
Memory of the Holocaust is an interesting, dynamic phenomenon. Individuals, groups, and countries have different versions of those memories, but collectively speaking, we don’t seem to remember what we need to. In fact, we don’t seem to remember that it happened at all:
“41 percent of Americans and 66 percent of millennials say they don’t know about the Auschwitz death camp where more than a million Jews and others, including Poles, Roma people and gays were executed. Forty-one percent of millennials believe 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. It was 6 million. And 22 percent of millennials say they haven’t even heard of the Holocaust.” (Scott Simon)
Those statistics are not just sad, disturbing, and staggering, they are exceedingly dangerous. They are threatening to the future of every individual, culture, group, religion, and society as a whole. The mistake that people make when remembering the Holocaust is remembering it as a Jewish problem. If it was solely a Jewish problem, then people such as myself, fighting against all odds to keep this memory alive, wouldn’t bother to do so beyond the confines of our own Jewish communities. The act of not bothering to remember then becomes self-destructive on a global scale as the likelihood of such an event reocurring steadily rises.
On a personal level, I don’t want people to forget what happened to my grandfather and his family. I don’t want people to forget that I connect to this day with tendrils of sorrow, remembering that my great-grandparents never saw liberation from Auschwitz; remembering that my grandfather waited at the train station for his parents after the liberation of Auschwitz, only to go home alone. But when I move beyond the personal grievances and bitterness, I realize that I don’t need the world to remember the Holocaust for me. Of course, I want the world to remember my family’s story, to learn from it and be hurt by it as they should be—maybe then I’ll feel an ounce of satisfaction that I have paid them some sort of tribute or made their deaths and suffering mean something, anything at all. But in the end, it’s not about what the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor needs or wants. It’s about what the entire world needs whether they want it or not.
What the world needs, unfortunately, is a memory of the Holocaust set within a different context; a context with global relevance that even the most oblivious of people couldn’t ignore. After all, the Holocaust means very little to most people going about their daily lives who don’t have any apparent reason to think about it. With Jews constituting less than 1% of the world, why would the rest of the world care about what happened nearly a century ago to the global minority? The answer, evidently, is that they wouldn’t. So if we descendants of survivors, Jews, and other people who understand the threat of forgetting the Holocaust do anything in our short lives, let us do this: re-contextualize the memory of the Holocaust so that people cannot ignore it; so that the people of the world, like the members of my family, can’t help but remember. If we are creative about explaining the globally pervasive nature of all kinds of hate that can transpire into events like the Holocaust, then people just might begin to remember.