By Molly Sugarman
Remembering the Holocaust isn’t about clinging to the past. It’s about carrying forward the values we want to define us, according to the panelists of Why Memory Matters, a zoom discussion hosted by New York State Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell, on Thursday, January 27, which was International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“The day falls on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of the death camps where Nazi Germany carried out its Final Solution seeking to murder the Jewish people of Europe,” AP reported.
Each panelist, including Senator Chuck Schumer, had grim tales to tell of relatives who died or were traumatized during the Holocaust, but the focus was on how remembering can help us avoid another such event.
As Rabbi Abraham Cooper pointed out, history teaches us dates and events, but memory shines a light on all history, good and bad. “If you want to move forward in a positive way, you have to schlep memory along with you,” he said. Cooper is Associate Dean, Director of Global Social Action, The Simon Wiesenthal Center.
But memory is only effective if people act on it. Cooper pointed out instances in which that was not done, such as the gassing of 5,000 Kurds by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. “If we had acted in the 1980s to put an end to that behavior, we’d have a different world today,” he said.
That indifference still puts people in danger, he noted, citing the incident on the 2 train on Wednesday, Jan. 26, when an obviously Jewish woman was harassed and threatened. “What troubles me is no one else in that train reacted to the incident. We have a huge job ahead of us, educating our young about democratic values, nonviolence, and helping others.”
Education is made harder by actions such as the removal of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus, from the shelves of a Tennessee school district on Jan. 10. The objections ostensibly were to eight curse words and a naked woman—depicted as a mouse.
To counter that mindset, two other panelists–Roz Jacobs and Laurie Weisman—have created teaching units that use the stories of the Holocaust to connect people to each other and help them accept differences. The Memory Project uses remembrance and art to promote social justice.
Jacobs is the descendent of two Holocaust survivors but, like many survivors, they did not talk about their experiences until they realized the value to others. As her grandmother said in a short film shown during the discussion, “We continue to remember, we give a message to the world, don’t let it happen again, no place, no country.”
Jacobs and Weisman take their program to areas where the history of the Jewish people is not widely known. Their exhibit has traveled the world and connects deeply with people who have experienced their own trauma, such as Rwandans. The survivors see the stories and it gives them hope, Jacobs said. “We also show [survivors’] lives now, so others can see that they went through horror, but now are vibrant, loving people. They made it,” Weisman added.
O’Donnell noted that the seeds of such hostility are alive and well. “We live in a world of increased polarization, increased hate crimes, high profile attacks … all underscore the threats we all face,” he said. “When I walk through the district or ride the subway, I hear people talking about it.”
Events such as 9/11 and January 6 are already being minimized, panelist Karen Baum Gordon noted. She is the author of The Last Letter: A Father’s Struggle, a Daughter’s Quest, and the Long Shadow of the Holocaust, which recounts her father’s life story as she pieced it together from letters, archival materials, and photos.
Citing the Wannsee Protocol—a Nazi document detailing the extinction of the Jews and the starvation of 30 million other people in conquered territories–Rabbi Cooper had three takeaways, warnings for the future:
- Never confuse educational degrees with ethics. Eight of those who agreed to this had Ph.Ds.
- If someone threatens to kill you, take them at their word. Hitler spoke of governmental policy to eliminate Jews as early as 1919.
- And, as Simon Wiesenthal told him, If there is a situation where you have hate, a social crisis, and technology … anything is possible.
But the goal of the panel was not to define oneself by tragedy. It was, as Rabbi Cooper said, to determine the values that animated and sustained people during the Holocaust, and helped them survive.
The preservation of those values is the goal of remembrance.