Thane Rosenbaum

Will Auschwitz make it to eighty?

The emotional power that the Holocaust once held on humanity is losing momentum

As northeastern United States braces for a blizzard that will test the survival instincts of many, there is irony that as one storm approaches a far more lethal one is being remembered: the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

A blizzard, of course, is mostly just a burden. Acts of God are not the same as manmade atrocities. Hopefully this storm will pass and leave few, if any, casualties. Auschwitz, on the other hand, the most industrious death camp among the constellation of such monstrous facilities under the Nazis, was the capstone in man’s inhumanity to man. Over one million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there. Liberating Auschwitz 70 years ago epitomized Germany’s defeat, although it arrived too late and came without victory. What redemption can be expected after mass murder on such a grand scale?

Still, for 70 years, the word Auschwitz has served as a synonym for moral failure and as the defining symbol of the Holocaust. If one survived with a tattooed number on his or her arm, chances are they were in Auschwitz and lived to tell about it.

Today, in Poland, a ceremony will be held at the camp to mark the anniversary, attended by many world leaders, including the presidents of Germany, France and Poland. Nearly 300 survivors of Auschwitz are expected to attend, as well, including the youngest, who is 72-years-old.

It’s worth pondering, however, whether this ghostly graveyard, with its dreaded name, will hold any symbolic meaning at all ten years from now? An 80th-year commemoration may not be in its future. By 2025 few, if any, survivors will be alive who bore witness to the sadistic evil represented in the welcome sign above the gate: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will set you free).

The emotional power that the Holocaust once held on humanity has lost much of its momentum in recent years. In our post-9/11 consciousness, there is no shortage of other atrocities to lament: ongoing genocides in the Congo and Sudan; the raping of children in Nigeria; daily beheadings in Iraq. Even our cartoonists are no longer safe.

And the moral authority that Auschwitz once possessed as a mandate against anti-Semitism has apparently vanished, as well. In last year’s European Parliamentary elections, neo-Nazis in Hungary and Greece won seats. Anti-Israel protests in France, Britain, Belgium, and Italy this past summer, ostensibly over the war in Gaza, more resembled the anti-Semitic orgies of yesteryear. Slogans such as “Death to the Jews!” were resurrected in front of a French synagogue with 200 Jews trapped inside. In May, three Jews were shot dead in the Jewish Museum in Brussels; in 2012, a rabbi and three children were murdered outside of a Jewish school in France.

All this on the same continent where Auschwitz purportedly symbolizes anti-Semitism at its most barbarous and extreme.

It is true that Holocaust education is taught throughout Europe. But the success of these programs seems to depend on Holocaust survivors visiting schools. Will video archives of survivor testimony carry the same emotional weight when the human experience of seeing a living survivor is no longer possible?

The heyday for Holocaust memory was the 1990s when “Schindler’s List” dominated the Academy Awards and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. became the hottest ticket in town. Today, the urgency and cautionary lessons surrounding the Holocaust has dissipated, if not all but disappeared.

In the United States there is waning interest with far fewer communities hosting annual Yom HaShoah commemorations and fewer schools teaching the Holocaust as a subject. Despite all appearances, Israel has often displayed ambivalence toward the Holocaust. Too much Ashkenazi passivity clashes with a national ethos of Sephardic valor.

Meanwhile, plans are underway to repair some of the buildings at Auschwitz and to landscape its grounds, all in an effort to ensure that it remain a vibrant memorial and a tourist destination. The paradox that Europe’s memory of the Holocaust is being forgotten, if not desecrated, is lost amid all the good intentions. In ten years Auschwitz may attract no visitors at all. Instead of a renovation, some will invariably suggest that its infamous grounds be converted into a parking lot.

Thankfully, at least on this inauspicious day when those who managed to stay alive in a death factory were liberated, Auschwitz is being recalled for what it once was—fresh coats of paint be damned.

It still exists under a smoke-filled cloud of the unfathomable. But now its future holds a similar mystery. We better brace ourselves for more surprises. There may soon come a day when Auschwitz will become completely irrelevant.

About the Author
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society (FOLCS). He is the author, most recently, of the novel, "How Sweet It Is!" His forthcoming nonfiction book is titled, "The High Cost of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment."
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