International Holocaust Remembrance Day, set by the United Nations to be recognized annually on the date of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet troops has, in recent years, become an important event for many. And, yet, one might argue that January 27 itself has adopted a sad parallel to the historical event it acknowledges. Just as the liberation of the death camps came too late for millions of Jews, international recognition of the need to publicly remember their fate came too late for most survivors.
Most of the perpetrators and collaborators in the extermination of European Jewry escaped punishment. Precious information about and physical evidence of the Holocaust were lost to posterity during the six decades between the end of the carnage of the Second World War and the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7, which, for the first time, deemed the victims of the worst crime in human history worthy of the attention of all humanity.
For the Jewish people, especially Jewish educators, as well as all those concerned with Holocaust remembrance, the personal testimony of the survivors has become a primary foundation on which each generation’s Jewish identity is built.
It is to the everlasting credit of our people that we have managed to turn the horror of the extermination of the six million not into a sermon of eternal vengeance and bitterness, but rather into a parable of light overcoming darkness, humanity overcoming barbarity, and Jewish legacy overcoming death.
However, as we move in time away from the Holocaust, we increasingly face a new reality, in which, sadly, the survivors are leaving us. Until now, the strongest and truest way to teach new generations about the Holocaust was to encourage them to meet face to face with the living witnesses, people who came through the Nazi hell to tell their stories – from Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel z”l to his fellow Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, from the thousands of Russian-speaking Jews who brought their memories to Jewish communities around the world, to the brave generation which built the State of Israel on the heels of the unthinkable tragedy. Yet in the very near future, we will have to adapt to a reality in which the history of the Holocaust is indeed history – recorded testimonies, documents, research, but no longer a living memory.
This new reality will bring with it new challenges from within the Jewish world as well as from outside of it. Increasingly, we see ignorant and ill-intentioned perspectives conveying “historical revisionism” – the denial of the Holocaust in general and the questioning of the veracity of individual testimonies. Another tendency, which is already manifesting itself, is to appropriate the memory of the Holocaust to a current crisis, war or massacre, thus diluting the Holocaust of the European Jewry of its unique meaning.
As barbaric atrocities occur around the world, there is a tendency by some to describe these events using the language of the Holocaust. While we must find a way to speak out against modern genocide, war and massacres with unrestrained outrage, we must also carefully guard the legacy of the six million who we lost and who would not have a voice if it were not for our voices.
The challenge from within is no less daunting. Without living witnesses, Jewish educators and those trusted with preservation of the memory of the Holocaust will have to perpetually innovate in order to reach new generations with ever evolving opportunities today’s technology affords us. We must also realize that in the new world of multiple identities and diverse interests, Holocaust education should not be taken for granted as a subject inherently understood and valued by today’s and tomorrow’s young Jews – the very people who will take on the task to ensure the “Never Again.”
A conference of Jewish educators last month at Yad Vashem was an important step forward. At the unprecedented gathering, more than 200 heads of Jewish day schools convened with educational experts to discuss the central issues of Holocaust education today and perspectives for the future.
The conference, which the organization I am honored to lead, Genesis Philanthropy Group, was a proud partner of, also served as an example of how, working together, global Jewish leaders can respond to challenges in coming years and carry forth the torch of memory to future generations. Current generations have embraced the “Never Again” approach, but it is also their responsibility, our responsibility, to ensure that this approach does not ring hollow to our children and grandchildren, as they must “Never Forget” the who and the why of “Never Again.”
By Ilia Salita
The President and CEO of Genesis Philanthropy Group, a foundation supporting projects and institutions that develop and enhance a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide.