We Must Remember
It’s no secret as a teenager I was raised in a comfortable, albeit sheltered, middle-class home. I was shielded from the horrors of the world. All I knew of terror was what I saw in movies and read in books. Each time I heard of war, ethnic cleansing, abuses of power, or even murders in my small town, I always felt disconnected from them. Maybe that was how our society (or at least my family) wanted it to be so that the youth of those days would feel safe and secure. Then I grew up and September 11th happened and my world of ignorant bliss was shaken. For the first time I had a taste of just how bad things could get. Yet in the months that followed, once again I distanced myself from such matters because I really didn’t want to believe something so horrible really existed.
What little I remember from learning about the Holocaust in school was a very white-washed version. People are often reluctant to truly look at the horror of what happened; being faced with the fact that humans can be so appallingly cruel to each other. Over the years, I have seen images of Nazi concentration camps and read about the anguished accounts from the survivors, yet nothing could truly prepare me for the harsh reality of this epicenter of evil truth as I was Google searching for information on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Where systematic murder reached it atrocious climax. Auschwitz survivor and United Nations Messenger of Peace Elie Weisel wrote of seeing the fires and thinking “The civilized world would not allow it.” Yet…
I’ve seen photos of the piles of glasses, hair, shoes, prayer shawls and dolls and try to imagine the individuals to whom they belonged. I stare in disbelief at the images of the gas chambers and crematorium and shudder. Simply knowing that 6 million innocent Jews, including 1 million children, were abused and executed. Decades later it remains almost impossible to come to terms with the nature and scale of this genocidal crime. Those numbers are hard for me to wrap my head around – essentially the entire cities of LA and San Diego wiped out in just a handful of years. I miss the childhood bubble in which I was raised but my stark reality check was long past due.
Last fall I wrote about the anniversary of 9-11 and called it “We All Remember”. I think naming this “We MUST Remember” is fitting; if we don’t remember it could happen again.
After decades of progress, Holocaust memory is being challenged. The historical record is increasingly being distorted or disregarded by governments, leading politicians, and others with growing influence over national policy making and public opinion. This is taking place as the survivors and other eyewitnesses to the era of the Holocaust themselves pass into history. Holocaust distortion misrepresents established facts about the Holocaust and minimizes its impact and shifts responsibility for it. Recognizing the global importance of sustaining Holocaust memory is imperative so as to not “bleach” the facts, even as disturbing as the photos and personal accounts can be. As the generation of survivors dwindle, whose words will win?
The proponents and enablers of Holocaust distortion include governments, political leaders and non-state actors. They have increasingly political power and societal influence, and are bringing ideas once considered to be universally unacceptable and extreme into the mainstream of politics and public debate. Disputes and tensions over memory have international implications and therefore international solutions that build on cooperation between governments and Non-Governmental Organizations across borders are needed in response. Call for political leaders and public figures to speak out strongly and promptly when denial or distortion occurs.
Current trends in Holocaust distortion do not exist in a vacuum. Growths in distortion have paralleled other troublesome trends such as an erosion of democratic norms and institutions, the intensification of antisemitism and the rise of aggressive nationalism and xenophobia. Although all nations try to control their historical narratives, in democracies, free speech often increases the negativity and rhetoric.
Many political leaders who are proponents or enablers of the distortion are also at the forefront of campaigns against Romany (Gypsy) and LGBTQ+ people – who were persecuted during the Holocaust – as well as refugees and migrants, Muslims and people of color. These campaigns contribute to social divisions. The memory of the Holocaust serves as a warning against the return of group-targeted hatred within the context of an erosion of democratic principles and institutions.
Many deniers reject the term, describing themselves instead as “revisionists”. This is no different than calling White Supremacy, Nationalism. Both labels only serve to water down the actual intent of the groups. Even today, the fire of prejudice smolders. Anti-Semitism retains its hold in too many places. In the United States, Europe and elsewhere, migrants, Muslims, Roma and other minorities face rising discrimination – and find too many defenders.
The world must never forget, deny, or downplay the Holocaust. We must remain ever on our guard. And we must do more, far more, to promote equality and fundamental freedoms.
Imagine one day, all that’s left is a green plain,
No fences or camps to see.
The only thing that will remain is what we tell our grandchildren we saw,
The day we stepped out of the deadly Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.
It is our duty to see.
It is our duty to never forget.