For those who share a deep appreciation for history, the combination of pivotal events and powerful intellects and captivating personalities who shaped our nation and way of life, this cannot be said to be the best of times.
Many of us are numbed by the succession of surveys showing how little familiarity young people have with history. We are dismayed as civics education withers in too many schools. Thus, there seemed to be little distress over the latest example of cultural illiteracy to surface. Well, this one should be different, and the alarms ought to sound more loudly.
A survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day showed that many Americans are unfamiliar with the Nazi effort to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population. The knowledge deficiency is especially acute among millennials. Folks are unaware or uncertain of the fundamental details, such as the death toll of 6 million, believing it to be much lower. More did not recognize the name Auschwitz. Even more did not know that Hitler was elected. If there was a silver lining, the survey at least assures us Holocaust denial remains rare.
Holocaust remembrance invokes awareness of horrific events and the consequences of racial scapegoating and religious hatred spun out of control. It involves understanding how a bad brew of human frailties, fears, and prejudices can cascade into unthinkable inhumanity. The mind has trouble processing the scope of destruction. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, the Valley of Destroyed Communities has inscribed on 107 rock walls the names of 5,000 Jewish communities decimated or obliterated. To give this number context, it is nearly double the number of Pennsylvania’s municipalities. At the Children’s Memorial, a tape containing the names of the more than one million young who perished takes nearly a week to play through. It takes mere moments for tears of sadness and outrage to well.
The passage of time has not lessened the need for us to make the vow “never again” meaningful and nonnegotiable. People of every party and philosophy and background are quite appalled at the nature of our national discourse. When leaders are practiced at cynically driving wedges to divide us, when blaming others for problems real and imagined becomes commonplace, when we start carefully screening who is suitable by heritage or skill or faith to live among us, moral behavior begins giving way. The disgraceful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II ought to flash large every time someone asserts every individual of a nationality or a religion is here to sabotage and subvert America.
This is not to suggest that things in America would ever take such a ghastly turn as they did in Germany in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. But we cannot say the same for other nations, who lack our moral restraint or the institutional checks and balances built into our system and who see our sterling example as increasingly tarnished.
Those who know little about the Holocaust likely are equally uninformed about our nation’s disreputable record of the time. About how refugee ships were turned away from our shores, with many of the desperate passengers later dying in Nazi death camps. About how immigration quotas were not relaxed, because anti-Semitism was embedded in government and in public sentiment. Yet even today, whenever there is a proposal to require Holocaust instruction as part of the school curriculum, a discouraging litany of objections surfaces. Time and comfort count more than memory.
These concerns come into focus because, as with the World War II veterans, the Holocaust survivors are rapidly dying off. It will not be too many years before there will no longer be first-hand accounts. Sure, other means of communicating will be found. Foundations and museums are testing apps and holograms as means for making connections between the experiences of survivors and the questions we have. But there is no complete substitute for the emotional power of survivor testimony.
Listening to a Holocaust survivor recount the brutality and horrors they witnessed and what they had to endure to emerge alive is an experience unlike any other. The lessons imparted include how they coped with trauma of the severest degree, how they summoned incredible survival instincts, and how they focused on living and not giving in to the natural impulses for hating and seeking revenge.
Whether it is born of the spirit of forgiveness, or tolerance, or the determination to build a better future, the attitude of purposeful life they embrace is chastening. We should reflect on how minor annoyances of life transform into major grievances. On how we let relatively small obstacles derail us from our path in life. On how we increasingly demonize those who disagree with us. On how mundane policy arguments mushroom rhetorically into life and death matters. On how small worries and irrational fears are magnified out of proportion in an effort to deny others opportunity or advancement. On how trolling has become something of a scary pastime for a growing bloc of ill-intended folks. If those of severely diminished body and spirit lead good lives, why cannot we?
If remembrance fades, lessons are lost, warnings are silenced, inspirations vanish. We are not just poorer for it. What we do not know or care to understand is so much easier to discount or ignore as conspiracy theory or fake news. When memory dims, truths are lost. Fictions and fantasies rise to fill the void. When the last survivor is gone, we will no longer have among us those who can say: “I was there. This is how it was. It was not like the apologists would have us believe.”
Holocaust remembrance is an obligation not limited by nationality or faith. We can read the names of victims at a synagogue or temple. We can visit memorials and museums. We can engage in conversations to illuminate and enlighten. We can protest intolerance and hate. The Holocaust is monumental inhumanity turned indelible object lesson for us, collectively, as a nation dedicated to freedom, justice, and respect for rights, ours and those of others.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.
David A. Atkinson is an Associate with the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies