The attendees at those events were largely survivors and their families. One, whom I recall quite well, was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, whose face was etched with sorrow in a way that told me almost everything I needed to know about the ordeal he endured. The Holocaust survivor with whom I worked to arrange that program just passed away some months ago, at the age of 96.
Last year, it is estimated that some 15,000 survivors passed away. Even child survivors are approaching 80 or are even older. One of the major challenges to remembrance is the reality that witnesses to, and victims of, Nazi barbarity will, at some point, not be here to testify to the worst crimes known to humankind.
Now that we’ve just come through the annual observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day — January 27, the date in 1945 when Auschwitz was liberated — this may be a good time to take stock of how we go about the immense task of remembering.
For the commemoration this year, B’nai B’rith hosted a program reflecting the international scope of the challenge before us. New German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and US Secretary for Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas — himself the son of a Holocaust refugee — were keynote speakers, and were joined by a host of experts on Holocaust remembrance and the battle against Jew-hatred, including Fernando Lottenberg, the newly-appointed Commissioner for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism at the Organization of American States.
As the program unfolded, I thought back to the small gathering of survivors on the Brandeis University campus decades ago, and what it is we need to do to ensure that remembrance does not fall victim to insufficient attention, distortion, or denial.
We are fighting the passage of time, as well as the passing of survivors. But it is not only that.
We are seeing the uneven results of Holocaust education — some states and local school boards require courses, but many do not. Modern definitions of the word “genocide” are often applied to situations and events that do not meet the intent of the man who coined the word — Rafael Lemkin — and this has lessened the uniqueness of the Holocaust. We’ve seen a proliferation of Holocaust denial and minimization from the far-right, the far-left, Islamists, the Palestinian leadership and its media and allies, and Iran. Now we are also seeing trivialization of the Holocaust by militant anti-vaccination activists. There are a growing number of examples of the latter — Robert Kennedy, Jr., being only the latest, when he suggested that, at least during the Holocaust, victims could escape over the Swiss Alps or hide in attics, like Anne Frank. Talk about the need for Holocaust education.
Further aggravating all of this is the internet and social media — which provide platforms for negationists and conspiracists — trumpeting all manner of Holocaust denial theories. What used to be shared in books sent in plain brown wrappers or in occasional newsletters by antisemites to antisemites, is now out there for all to see, in real time on your tablet, phone, or watch.
The dangerous spike in global antisemitism has added a multiplier effect to the toxic environment in which hatred thrives. So, how do we best combat a virus that has become, for us, a challenge of pandemic proportions?
Fortunately, we have a growing number of allies in this fight. Government representatives and agencies connected to the European Union are working closely with Jewish organizations to place Holocaust remembrance, denial, and trivialization high on the agenda. Many who have joined in these efforts see this within a framework of safeguarding democracy. Katharina Von Schnurbein, the European Commission Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism and Fostering Jewish Life, and a veteran of these discussions, says that political will and leadership are essential to rolling back the tide of hatred.
Legislation criminalizing Holocaust denial exists in some countries, but often needs the back-up of better training, resources, and proactive jurisprudence to bring the deniers to account. Most of the big social media platforms, a few of which profess to understand our concerns, have still been slow in actually addressing the proliferation of websites, messages, comments, and blogs that traffic in distortion and denial.
The importance of Holocaust education is essential. Recent surveys show that Millennials and members of Gen Z have little knowledge of what transpired in Europe between 1933 and 1945. Most think the number of Jewish victims was much lower, and have never heard of concentration camps, or can’t name one; some even believe that it was the Jews themselves who brought on the Holocaust. New approaches, technologies, and methodologies need to be employed to address this knowledge deficit before it is too late.
Addressing the current generation, Kathrin Meyer, the Secretary General of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), says messaging should include the idea that “it is cool to fight antisemitism; it is cool to fight distortion.” A joint campaign in the online space by four organizations, called “Protect the Facts,” — IHRA, the European Commission, the United Nations, and UNESCO — is aimed at raising awareness; more international organizations and NGOs should emulate this important new project.
And within that context, where Europe has seen widespread antisemitism, marked by disgraceful Holocaust references amongst soccer fans, it is gratifying to know that major clubs like Borussia Dortmund in Germany, and Chelsea, in the United Kingdom are proactively engaged in fighting this proliferation of Jew hatred. To make this a truly European effort, additional clubs should launch similar initiatives.
Holocaust denial as a political tool has its proponents, as well. Just a couple of weeks ago, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for an Israeli-introduced, and German co-sponsored, resolution on distortion and Holocaust denial. Iran was the only country to speak against the measure. Said its foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, “the fake Zionist regime has constantly tried to use the victims of World War II and the Jews as a justification for its shameless and aggressive actions.” This, from a country that has sponsored, among other activity, cartoon contests that mock the memory of the Holocaust, and whose leaders make genocidal calls for Israel’s elimination on a daily basis.
Lessons learned? We need to redouble our efforts at cooperation, and bringing governments, intergovernmental bodies, the education community, and civil society closer together if we are to fully teach future generations about what befell the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis, and what lessons there are to be learned from it.
As the IHRA’s Kathrin Meyer perceptively said, “We must outnumber the haters.”