OPINION: How We Talk About the Holocaust
I have listened to approximately a dozen Holocaust survivors’ stories in my 21 years, but the first time I broke down in tears was on April 2 when Werner Reich gave a detailed account of his teen years spent running from the Nazi Party. Once arrested by the party, Reich endured consistent brutality and was sent to a treacherous chain of concentration camps before his liberation in May of 1945.
However, there was nothing about Reich’s story that was any more gruesome or devastating than the stories I had heard throughout middle and high school. I was not even brought to tears by the emotions, or lack thereof, of my seatmates — both of whom had dozed off as Reich addressed the audience. I exited the auditorium swiftly after Reich concluded, wiping tears with shaken fists. I wholed up in my apartment and tried to work through why this man’s account had affected me on a deeper level than any other Holocaust story.
It was not until the next day when I continued work on my independent study that I realized why I had reacted so intensely to Reich’s presentation. This past semester I have embarked on an independent study in which I’ve thoroughly researched several aspects of anti-Semitism around the world. I’ve studied the origins of the intolerance and how these origins impact the course that anti-Semitism takes in a given location. Additionally, I’ve sought to uncover what different conditions contribute to the continued existence of anti-Semitism around the world.
Since the beginning of the spring semester, I have read countless statistics about anti-Semitic attitudes in the Middle East, accounts of anti-Semitic violence throughout Europe and anti-Semitic online musings on sites based in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 60% increase in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016 and 2017 in the United States alone. While devastating, I have yet to visualize the result of this culminating anti-Semitism. The idea of another Holocaust had never occurred to me. I had never considered a world in which the Holocaust would drift from people’s consciousnesses as time went on and Holocaust survivors began to die off.
I tried to plow through more research but could not shake the anxiety and fear that as the world deteriorated, socially, morally, environmentally, economically, the Jews would get the blame. Jewish people are a marginalized group that has consistently experienced some sort of hate across space and time. While other marginalized groups have and do experience constant oppression, I intended to research why there was not some sort of mass-movement aimed at halting this anti-Semitism. If this type of hatred towards a previously persecuted group of people could occur only 75 years after their liberation, will the hate escalate once those who bore first hand witness to the second World War pass away?
Some may argue that it is impossible to forget the events of the Holocaust, as it is a required part of most secondary school curriculums. While true that the horrors of the Holocaust will likely be taught for centuries, I fear that future students will become desensitized to these horrors without those that experienced the horrors around to tell their stories. I find myself comparing lessons on the Holocaust to lessons on slavery. During my K-12 education, I was taught about slavery almost every other year. The lessons were impersonal and fairly generic. The human aspect of slavery got lost among the flashcards of Civil War dates and the idea of a fully enslaved human being did not register with myself and my classmates.
Today, black people are not actively enslaved, but face daily discrimination, persecution and oppression as a direct result of slavery as an institution. The way in which slavery is taught to young children has likely normalized discrimination and contributed to the inequity of people of color in the U.S. today. Similarly, only 75 years since the liberation of the Jews at the end of the second World War, lessons on the Holocaust have proven ineffective as Jews are still harassed, mocked and persecuted around the world. I do not have a solution for how to teach about the Holocaust in a way that will prevent anti-Semitic attitudes from spreading, but anti-Semitism has gained momentum on nearly every continent and if nothing changes to interfere with this pattern, history will repeat itself.