Trivializing the Holocaust is ignorant and dangerous at any time and in any place, but with the current spike in antisemitic attacks, it is especially frightening.
The recent brutal assault of a 29-year-old Jewish man in Times Square demonstrates that hate is on the rise and can happen anywhere—even in a cosmopolitan place like New York City. Or consider the ignorant and harmful comments by the freshman congresswoman from Georgia that should not only set off alarm bells, but also beckon us to think more lucidly about what exactly the Holocaust was, and what its lessons should be.
These physical and verbal assaults compel us to ask what we should do when we see evil in the world, how we should treat those who are different from us, what is our responsibility to our fellow human beings, and what is the impact of these antisemitic lies on individuals and on nations.
And they come just as a new worldwide initiative is set to honor the estimated 300,000 Holocaust survivors alive today. It is fitting that this initiative should come from the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, Poland. Poland by far lost the largest number of Jews during the Holocaust: 3 million.
Jonathan Ornstein, the center’s director, along with Michael Berenbaum, director of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, have launched a new day of observance called International Holocaust Survivor Day. The inaugural celebration will take place on June 24, with June 26 designated as Survivor Shabbat. Communities and organizations throughout the world will pause and honor the ever-dwindling numbers of those who endured and persevered.
The inaugural celebration will take place on June 24, with June 26 designated as Survivor Shabbat.
Some argue that we already remember the Holocaust on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 and Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) in the spring. They ask whether another day is really necessary.
But others point out that those observances commemorate the victims and the horrors inflicted on the Jews, not those who survived. International Holocaust Survivor Day honors the strength and resilience of the survivors. Despite having experienced the unimaginable, they were courageous enough to go on with their lives—most traveling to distant lands, learning new languages and cultures, building families, finding meaningful work, and many becoming quite successful. At least eight Jews who survived Nazi extermination camps, hiding in orphanages or fleeing Nazi Germany to avoid persecution, have won the Nobel Prize.
We must also remember those who still struggle today on the fringe, poor and alone. International Holocaust Survivor Day is a time to recognize them, too, and to offer renewed assistance. Those who carry on bear testimony to Hitler’s failed diabolical plan to eliminate the Jews.
We must also remember those who still struggle today on the fringe, poor and alone. International Holocaust Survivor Day is a time to recognize them, too, and to offer renewed assistance.
The effort to celebrate these people comes just as we learn how little Americans today know about the Holocaust, more than 75 years after the end of World War II. A nationwide survey released last September 2020 found that those under 40 have an appalling lack of basic Holocaust knowledge. In fact, more than 1 in 10 respondents claimed they have never heard the word “Holocaust.”
The survey, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, was the first 50-state survey of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Generation Z. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed did not know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. While there were more than 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos established during World War II, about half of the individuals polled were unable to name a single one. Here’s another sobering statistic: only seventeen states require Holocaust education.
The trauma of the Holocaust is ingrained forever on the hearts, souls, and minds of those who survived—a mere remnant of European Jewry. Before World War II, about 9.5 million Jews lived in Europe, many in vibrant Jewish communities; many German Jews thought that they were fully assimilated. When the war ended, 6 million Jews had been exterminated.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day will kick-off with an event at the HaBima National Theater in Israel on June 24. It is organized by Colette Avital, a former Israeli consul general in New York and a member of the International Advisory Committee for Holocaust Survivor Day, who chairs the Center Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel.
As the number of survivors dwindles by the day, let us listen to their eyewitness accounts and resolve to continue to tell the horror of the Holocaust and the miracle of survival.
Meryl Ain is a member of The International Advisory Committee for Holocaust Survivor Day and is the author of the Post-Holocaust novel, “The Takeaway Men.”