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Remembering the Holocaust in an era of rising anti-Semitism

How to move past ritual remembrance toward something more meaningful

A visitor reads names on the victims wall in the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest on Thursday, three days ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (Balazs Mohai/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Today marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in 1945. It also marks three months since the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that claimed 11 Jewish lives, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.

On the first Holocaust Remembrance Day since that massacre, it is worth asking: What good are the annual rituals of Holocaust commemoration when anti-Semitic violence continues and is actually worsening? What good is saying “never forget”? What’s the use of remembering?

Given the persistence of violence against Jews and other marginalized groups singled out for their race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality or gender identity, a certain amount of skepticism toward ritual remembrance is warranted. When we invoke the power of memory, we implicitly argue the past has something to teach us, something that we can apply to the present to thwart the violence of bigotry.

But does it? Pittsburgh came on the heels of a nationally published survey revealing an alarming lack of knowledge about the Holocaust in America, especially among younger generations. Would better historical memory help reverse the anti-Semitic turn in American politics in recent years? And does Holocaust remembrance actually give us that better historical memory?

As museums and memorials to the Holocaust continue to multiply, there is legitimate concern about the nature of public memory in the near future when there are no more survivors who can offer a lived link to the history we vow to remember. Holocaust museums have begun introducing their audiences to “virtual survivors,” graphic representations of Holocaust survivors whose responses to questions have been recorded and categorized in anticipation of future questions, with all the attendant glitches and errors that digital technology invites.

Meanwhile, camp memorials and monuments host ever-increasing numbers of visitors, many of whom are aiming their cameras at themselves, apparently taking the focus away from the Holocaust, where it belongs. The presumed egocentrism of the Auschwitz tourist’s selfie, which may reflect a sincere effort to connect oneself to the past, feeds into a common refrain that Holocaust remembrance in the present era has degraded into “Shoah business."

Debates about the right way to memorialize an ever-distant past can go viral on social media, where the line between deniers, revisionists, pessimists and legitimately thoughtful voices becomes very blurry.

Some worry that the Holocaust receives too much attention, that its memory is misused for political or financial gain or that it allows us to overlook violent actions victimizing other groups around the world. Holocaust remembrance is too often assumed to have a hidden agenda, lining the pockets of profiteers (an old anti-Semitic trope), or legitimating Israeli policies of oppression by claiming the status of supreme victim.

Such cynical attitudes seem to be on the rise, not just among individuals, but in activist groups and even legislative bodies. The BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement’s efforts to silence Israeli scholars on American campuses, or Poland’s law criminalizing all mentions of collaboration between Poles and Nazis, or Malaysia’s ban on Israeli Paralympic athletes to protest Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, all reflect popular opinion in many parts of the world that Jewish influence needs to be checked, and that the Holocaust is a distraction from current injustices. Such attitudes amount to a collective scoff at the so-called “Holocaust industry,” but they help us understand neither history nor present-day conflicts.

This cynicism rests on a fundamentally flawed presumption about what Holocaust remembrance means, and what its purpose is.

To say “never forget” does not mean that we should remember only the Jewish victims of Nazi violence, who were uniquely targeted for extermination and for whom the final solution was concocted. The Nazis’ victims were numerous, even if their fixation on Jews was singular.

Furthermore, saying “never forget” does not mean that we should remember the Holocaust to the exclusion of other genocides or collective traumas. Nazi anti-Semitism is the outgrowth of a centuries-long history of Jew hatred in the West, and its transformation from a hatred based on religion to a violence based on pseudo-biology has a lot to say about other genocides and their abuses of science, democratic institutions and the media. To remember the Holocaust is to confront what is unique about it, and what it has in common with other crimes against humanity. To call attention to the uniqueness of the Holocaust in no way denies the uniqueness of every other genocide, each of which must be understood in its historical specificity precisely to grasp the nature of genocide.

Finally, Holocaust remembrance does not mean that memory is sufficient to solving the world’s injustices. If hateful acts of violence continue, it is not the fault of those who try to teach a lesson, but rather those who refuse to learn it.

Collective remembrance must be more than a profession of sympathy for the victims whom we cannot rescue. There must be some effort to understand the past and apply it to our present circumstances, even if many voices describe the Holocaust as “beyond comprehension.”

By remembering the Holocaust, we can understand a great deal about the steps that lead to genocide. We can become aware of the signs of intolerance that seek to divide groups and create scapegoats out of some to ease the resentments of others. We can learn the lesson that silently standing by is never a justifiable response to the falsehoods of bigots. And we can inoculate ourselves against fearmongering by learning to see the shared humanity across our apparent differences. We are in this together, whatever our separate group identities or political affiliations.

Questioning the point of Holocaust remembrance can be salutary if its aim is to make sure that we think critically about what memory means in the context of an event most of us have not experienced. Questioning the point of Holocaust remembrance can even be the very point of such remembrance, so long as each of us commits to making it count.