Countering the erosion of Holocaust memory 76 years later – opinion

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 JUDIT ILLES

January 27, 2021 will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, designated by the United Nations General Assembly as a day to honor the memory of the six million Jews and other victims of Nazism – including but not limited to political prisoners, homosexuals, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities – and to advance Holocaust education. The date also coincides with the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a complex of three camps near the town of Oswiecim, Poland, where 1.1 million people were sent to their death through gas chambers or forced labor. Nearly one million Jews perished in the camp.

For me, this day is imbued with a deep sense of loss. My grandmother and her family members were among the 440,000 Jewish Hungarians deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Unlike her father and sister, who were sent straight to the gas chambers upon their arrival, my grandmother was deemed fit for forced labor, tattooed with a number, and assigned to sort the clothes of the dead. She survived many harrowing events until liberation, including a death march in the winter, in which she nearly gave up her will to live. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I mourn for the loss of my grandmother’s family members and the members of the thriving Jewish community of Munkacs, Hungary (today in Western Ukraine), as well as the missing generations of Jews who would be walking the streets and contributing to the world today.

For individuals without a family connection or geographic tie to events, the Holocaust as a piece of history seems to be of decreasing relevance. Recent national surveys conducted by the Claims Conference of adults from the US (including a state-by-state analysis), Canada, France, and Austria yielded a plethora of disturbing findings, including:

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– 22% of millennials (adults aged 25-40 years old) in Canada and 25% of millennials in France haven’t heard or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust.

– 25% of Austrian adult respondents believe that one million or fewer Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. The ignorance is even greater among adults belonging to the millennials and Gen Z generations (born between 1997 and 2021), almost one-third of whom (30%) believe that one million or fewer Jews were murdered.

– 20% of adults under the age of 40 in New York State feel the Jews caused the Holocaust.

These findings and other related events seem to suggest that the transmission of historical facts about the Holocaust has greatly waned in the last 76 years and is at risk of being distorted. In the European Union, several countries have gone so far as to attempt to legislate historical revisionism. Legislators are considering or have already passed laws that seek to whitewash the role of past national governments. In debates on contemporary issues, the co-opting of Holocaust history and use of Nazi-related analogies is now de rigeur, accomplishing little to build the public’s knowledge of facts.

WHAT GAINS can the next 76 years possibly bring? As the population ages and few survivors remain to share their story in person, I believe there is a limited window of time to reaffirm the Holocaust as a uniquely tragic event, and to transmit a desire to study it to subsequent generations. Thankfully, there are many reliable primary and secondary sources, survivor testimonies and high-quality museums to ground one’s understanding. Among the 44,000 camps and sites for incarceration (including ghettos) that were established in Nazi Germany and allied countries, several have been preserved and are open to visitors thanks to the conscientiousness of philanthropists such as World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder. These include Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, which I found to be incomparable in effect to any other form of Holocaust education.

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Yet unless individuals are personally motivated and feel that the inquiry is worth the pursuit, they will likely not teach themselves history, or buy a flight ticket to a foreign country. The same applies to persons with a family or religious connection who may occasionally profess to ‘Holocaust fatigue’ (something I can’t purport to understand).

Advocacy, active teaching, and awareness raising are needed to put years of scholarly work, preservation and professional storytelling into practice. Recent legislation that was signed into law last year in the US can serve as a model for other nations. The “Never Again Education Act” recognizes that Holocaust education is not easily translatable to students from a textbook. It provides federal funding for individual educators to work with United States Holocaust Museum on curriculum in middle and high schools. 3G (third generation)-focused organizations are another avenue for creating experiential learning around the Holocaust by helping the children and grandchildren of survivors effectively document and pass down memories in their local communities.

From a global perspective, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) is ideally positioned to rally Jewish communities around the world for awareness-raising projects. Of equal importance, the WJC is securing partnerships with non-Jewish advocates and organizations outside of Jewish communities that share a common interest in maintaining the integrity and relevance of Holocaust history. These individuals and organizations are crucial custodians of Holocaust history.

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This coming International Holocaust Remembrance Day will be unique in that it will be marked by a series of virtual events, such as the WJC’s #WeRemember online campaign which you can join by posting a photo of yourself on social media holding a sign that says “We Remember” using the hashtag #WeRemember.

It is a simple yet meaningful way to honor the memory of the victims and encourage people to learn more about the Holocaust. Lighting a memorial candle, reading a survivor’s story, or listening to the reading of names, are other ways to pay tribute. There are boundless ways to meaningfully commemorate if the will and interest are there.

How will you mark January 27?

 

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