The events marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz came to a close this week. Most significant among them: a gathering at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, with more than 40 heads of state; and the culminating ceremony—which took place at the death camp itself on Monday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, with dozens of elderly survivors. With this momentous anniversary behind us, a new era begins: one that awakens deep fears and concerns, and that poses a great moral challenge.
Some years from now, we will enter a time with no survivors and no direct witnesses of the horrors of the Holocaust. When they are all gone, there will be no one left to speak in first person singular, there will be no living testimony to impress upon the unfolding generations the immensity of the atrocity, the unfathomable cruelty, and to counter Holocaust denial or falsification of the facts. Human memory is selective—it is fragile and vulnerable to manipulation. We live in extremely dangerous times of alternative facts; truth has become fungible, optional, dispensable. Who will remember the truth? Not only what happened but how it happened?
These past two weeks, it has been repulsive to witness world leaders hijacking, distorting, and abusing the memory of the Holocaust for political gain. Whether it was in order to whitewash their country’s Holocaust legacy, or to restore national pride at a time of deepening nationalism, or to advance their own power, political agenda, and geopolitical goals; there has been little reflection and soul-searching, and almost no serious attempt to heed the lessons of the past by generating real moral imperatives, other than repeating the usual empty slogans.
Yes, much is being invested in the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust: There is no lack of museums, memorials, films, literature, research, and scholarship. And yet, antisemitism and racism are fast on the rise in Europe, in the very places where the atrocities happened. And it is fast on the rise here in the US as well.
And it is not just about us and the threats against us as Jews. Nationalism, ethnic supremacy, and xenophobia are spreading all around the world (and I must be clear: Israel and the Jewish people are not immune to those diseases). We don’t know where all the present hatred will take humanity.
From the many articles about the Auschwitz commemorations, the words of Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, have stayed with me:
“More and more we seem to be having trouble connecting our historical knowledge with our moral choices today. I can imagine a society that understands history very well but does not draw any conclusion from this knowledge. In this current political moment, this can be dangerous.”
“We see those old ghosts rear their heads everywhere today. Anti-Semitism, racism, demagogy, contempt and hatred, we are becoming more and more indifferent, introverted, apathetic and passive. Most were silent as the Syrians were drowning, we silently turned our backs on the Congolese people and the Rohingya people, and now the Uighurs. Our silence is our severe defeat.”
The lesson of Auschwitz and of all genocides before and since—and the task we have thus far failed to embrace—is the inescapable obligation to remember, to connect memory to conscience, and to act in defense of the sanctity of life everywhere; lest humanity continue to drown in indifference and silence.