On Remembrance of the Holocaust

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Today is also the 75th anniversary of the closing of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

And here’s the thing—so much has been forgotten about the Holocaust that what I said in my previous paragraph means little or nothing to a large percentage of people in this world.

The statistics are staggering. About a third of Europeans—the people who live on the continent where the Holocaust actually happened—know little or nothing about the Holocaust.[1] 41 percent of Americans don’t even know what Auschwitz is,[2] and two thirds of people in my age bracket (18-34) don’t know what Auschwitz is, either.[3]

Statistics aside, anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise, including in the United States. It’s a reality I’m painfully aware of in New York City, a city with a large Jewish population. That reality hit close to home for me, as one of the attacks that made the news in New York City recently happened just two blocks from where I work.

Given the grim picture I’ve outlined, I’m going to attempt to do three things here: talk about what the Holocaust is, talk about why we should be terrified of the thought of people not remembering the Holocaust, and make some suggestions about how the United States and the world can do to remember the Holocaust better.

So, for readers who don’t know, the Holocaust was when the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, the leader of Germany from 1933 to 1945, wanted to “purify” Germany[4] of anyone considered inferior. Jews were particularly hard hit, as 6 million of them were killed in what were called concentration camps, including 1 million at Auschwitz. Other groups suffered high death tolls—that includes 7 million Soviets (including 1.3 million Soviet Jews), about 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, around 1.8 million Poles, 312,000 Serbs, up to 250,000 people with disabilities, up to 250,000 gypsies, at least 70,000 repeat criminal offenders, and an unknown number of gay men.[5] In total, Hitler’s efforts to “purify” resulted in the deaths of 15 to 20 million people—the population of New York City, Los Angeles andChicago (the three biggest cities in America) combined at the lower end of the death toll estimate.

It’s scary to think that such a heinous act of mass murder is forgotten by so many. By forgetting the Holocaust, we are forgetting the immense danger in labeling any group of human beings as inferior to other human beings just because of their religion, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, or some other characteristic that does no harm to others. After all, by labeling any human being as inferior to any other human being for such traits, we are already halfway there to the mindset that the Nazis had—the Nazis also believed that some humans were inferior to others, but took it a step further and said that because of this inferiority, those “inferior” people must be exterminated. By failing to remember the Holocaust, we are failing to recognize the mindset that led to the Holocaust, and the mindset that has, quite frankly, led to chants such as “Jews will not replace us” from the rising forces of anti-Semitism in parts of the world.[6]

But how can we remember the Holocaust better, and avoid the consequences of forgetting about it? I probably don’t have every possible solution, but I will mention a few:

  1. Cities, states, and nations should make Holocaust education mandatory in curricula. To my surprise, I found, while doing research for this article, that only a handful of states in the U.S. do so.[7]
  2. We should all should explore other avenues for continuing Holocaust education beyond the classroom. I know that sounds vague, but the possibilities vary so widely, ranging from visiting a Holocaust museum to reading and listening about the experiences of those who lived through the Holocaust, that I wanted to leave this open-ended.
  3. All forms of social media must have a zero-tolerance policy on Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and white nationalism. Unless something changes between when I’m making my last edits on this piece (Sunday, January 26th, 2020) and when this piece gets published, Facebook still allows for Holocaust denial on its platform.[8] Shame on Facebook.

Yes, it is extremely terrifying that so many people don’t know what the Holocaust is or what Auschwitz is. Terrifying as that may be, I hope that this post is a call to action for us to educate ourselves and others about what happened in this dark time in history, so that we do not let something like the Holocaust ever happen again.

[1] https://www.politico.eu/article/holocaust-poll-third-of-europeans-know-little-or-nothing/

[2] https://www.nbc26.com/news/national/survey-41-percent-of-americans-dont-know-what-auschwitz-is

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/27/opinions/holocaust-education-importance-wall/index.html

[4] This does not just include modern-day Germany; it also includes land that the Nazis took control of, which at its height spanned large portions of Europe.

[5] https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/documenting-numbers-of-victims-of-the-holocaust-and-nazi-persecution

[6] “Jews will not replace us” was the chant from extremist neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia back in 2017, when anti-Semitic violence engulfed the city: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/nazis-racism-charlottesville/536928/

[7] https://www.newsweek.com/more-states-making-holocaust-genocide-education-must-472003

[8] https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/01/26/auschwitz-liberation-ban-holocaust-denial-on-facebook-column/4555483002/. While this is an opinion piece, it also confirms (as of January 26, 2020) still allows Holocaust denial.

An image of Auschwitz concentration camp.

Addressing the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

Tree of Life Synagogue Image
The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was the site of a mass shooting on October 27, 2018. By CTO HENRY [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons.
This past week has been filled with hate, so much so that I have changed blog topics three or four times in the past six days just to reflect all the bad news (President Trump’s rhetoric on “caravans” coming to the United States, the packages sent to prominent Democrats, and now the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh). Honestly, all of the horrid news of recent days left me wanting to write everything and write nothing, all at the same time.

But here I am, the night before I usually publish my Tuesday blog posts, writing on the most recent piece of bad news: the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I honestly can’t put into words how awful this tragedy was. A group of people worshiping peacefully (just as I worship peacefully in my own religion on a weekly basis) were put into a state of fear, injury, or death (depending on the individual) from an anti-Semitic individual.

Speaking of anti-Semitism, I think that we need to use this time after the shooting to reflect on anti-Semitism.

Namely, it is high time that those of us who have our heads in the sand about the presence of anti-Semitism in the United States take our heads out of the sand.[1]

Anti-Semitism is quite visible and has been given way too much legitimacy. Those who doubt me can look at the record number of white nationalist candidates running for office this year, including candidates who deny the Holocaust (and at least one candidate who, horrifyingly, was at least at one point a member of the American Nazi Party).[2] Those who doubt me can look at the fact that anti-Semitism was rising sharply in the United States, even before the Pittsburgh shooting.[3] And finally, those who doubt me can look at the violence involving neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia last year and see how the President of the United States said that there were “good people” on the side of neo-Nazis.[4] Anti-Semitism was around before 2017 and 2018, but it has certainly not gone away, and indications are that it has grown. We cannot ignore this anti-Semitism in the United States, and if we ignore it, then it will be to the peril of Jews across this country.

This does not mean that I have a solution that ends all anti-Semitism, and this does not mean that I expect my readers to have a solution to end anti-Semitism (though if anyone does have a roadmap for totally ending anti-Semitism nation-wide and worldwide, God Bless and Godspeed). However, we cannot even begin to think about solving a problem if we are blind to the problem in the first place. And right now, I fear that too many of us are blind to the fact that the anti-Semitism shown in the recent Synagogue shooting is not an isolated incident. It is part of a pattern of widespread anti-Semitism that is only growing in the United States.

Note: This post was written the night before it was published, so I apologize in advance for any mistakes that I made.

[1] I am not mincing words this week.

[2] https://www.businessinsider.com/white-nationalists-running-for-office-in-2018-2018-5

[3] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/10/28/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-anti-semitism-rise-america/1799933002/

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/trump-defends-white-nationalist-protesters-some-very-fine-people-on-both-sides/537012/