By: Eric Betts
Yom HaShoah is a day of solemn reflection, which is scheduled annually on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which honors the memory of the survivors and the six-million victims of Nazi persecution, while raising an awareness and educating our community for the prevention of future genocides. This month of Nisan falls in the spring on different dates on our Roman calendar each year. Nazism represented a planned, systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution against our Jewish neighbors and siblings within the human race.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “honors as survivors any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945. In addition to former inmates of concentration camps, ghettos, and prisons, this definition includes, among others, people who were refugees or were in hiding.”
According to National Geographic, historians use the term “Holocaust”— which is also called “the Shoah,” or “disaster” in Hebrew—to apply strictly to European Jews murdered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. Thus we have the annual recognition called “Yom HaShoah.” Six million were murdered, and millions more stripped of their livelihoods, their communities, their families, even their names. The horrors of the Holocaust are often expressed in numbers that convey the magnitude of Nazi Germany’s attempt to annihilate Europe’s Jews.
It is important to remember that the 1940s were not long ago; tens of thousands of survivors are still alive. According to the Atlanta Jewish Times, the number of survivors have only recently dipped below 50,000; the youngest are still in their 70s and nearly 60 percent are 85 and older. Indeed, we are living with the final generation of survivors, and it is urgent that we educate ourselves in these times not only about the horrors of the Holocaust, but how to avoid a repeat of such a horrific episode in the future. Hateful or ignorant rhetoric always has negative consequences which contributes to hostile mindsets by those who may very well hold positions of power. Seventy years removed from the Holocaust, our society still struggles to scrub our vocabulary from Anti-Semitic language and thought. Our education system has to a large degree failed in this area; the youth must be taught on this subject so that the next generation won’t walk in ignorance.
Stereotypes and conspiracies which existed in Europe prior to the Holocaust still linger in both Europe, America, and other parts of the world. Neo-Nazism, which always threatens Jewish life, is on the rise in Europe. In 2020, there was a rally in Budapest, Hungary, of Neo-Nazi groups which came from all over Europe. This supposed “Day of Honor,” was where they sought to honor Nazi soldiers as heroes. This event, which at one time was only attended by a few, has now reached hundreds. Evidence that anti-Semitic thought still exists in America may be seen in the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in 2018, where 11 persons were killed. The Anti-Semite entered the synagogue with a military-style assault weapon, while screaming hateful Anti-Jewish slurs. Fear, suspicion, and hatred of those we view as “the other” grows out of illusions of scarcity where we must compete for Earth’s resources or our place under the sun. Another deception is that if others are respected or viewed as equal stewards of Earth’s resources, somehow I will be diminished. When economic hardship occurs, jobs are lost, or changes occur that are difficult, it is the hateful impulse within human beings that looks for some other group to falsely accuse or blame. Truth tells us that we are all created equal and are all connected with one another in ways that are incomprehensible; to bring harm to others, we all are hurt in invisible ways. What is foolish and self-defeating about hating those outside of the “mainstream” is the reality that suggests that “there’s plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom” or “all of God’s children got shoes.”
Immediately following the massacre in Pittsburg, Rabbi Marvin Heir, founder and dean of Simon Wiesenthal Center, was quoted in the New York Times as stating, “I’m afraid to say that we may be at the beginning of what has happened to Europe, the consistent anti-Semitic attacks. If it is not nipped in the bud,” he continued, “I am afraid the worst is yet to come.” The article reveals that the killer’s social media interactions was filled with anti-Jewish slurs and references and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. When the Jewish community expresses their concerns in such a vivid way, we should believe, empathize and urgently work against such hateful sentiments. Love is not limited to refraining from slurs or physical harm, but it involves hating all that could potentially cause harm to those outside of my immediate community and publicly taking a stand against it.
It must be remembered that the Ku Klux Klan was not only an anti-Black organization but also an anti-Semitic organization responsible for bombing both Black churches and Jewish synagogues. Yet today, many families still teach their children that the Klan has been historically maligned and did many positive things to help people in the world. Even former Klansmen will tell you that indeed it was and remains a hateful, Nazi-sympathizing, murderous and genocidal organization.
Additionally, to our chagrin, Christian clergy and ecclesiastical organizations have a history of unwittingly including anti-Jewish language in our sermons, hymns, liturgy, and literature. There must be a re-education and studies in this area, so that rather than being a source of harm, we become allies and advocates on behalf of our Jewish neighbors to prevent future genocides. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who was also a key figure in the American civil rights movement, helped Catholic leaders to eliminate or modify dehumanizing language surrounding Jews in their religious rhetoric. All groups can benefit from his legacy of love. Loving our Jewish neighbors means that we listen to their concerns and that we are outraged by anything that adds to their pain.
To understand the connection between dehumanizing rhetoric and genocides, we can look no further than the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Those who study Rwanda’s genocide often draw a straight line between hateful dehumanizing rhetoric over the national airwaves to the killings which later took place. This human tragedy happened only twenty-nine years ago, and only fifty years from the Holocaust in Europe. This is frighteningly recent. Instead of educating ourselves on how to be sensitive to the experiences of others, we have created more sophisticated ways to express hatred through “plausible deniability.” Plausible deniability is a way to express oneself in a way that can be interpreted as xenophobic or anti-Semitic, but because it is not explicitly stated, enough has not been said that it can be plausibly denied. The difference between the communication airwaves of the 1940s and the 2000s is the advent of Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, where hateful anti-Semitic code language has been adopted, learned, and developed over time. Nazis attempted to cover up their crimes in the Holocaust—and denial of the genocide persists to this day on the internet. Human beings, even in the post-modern age, have an even greater capacity to inflict the greatest amount of hate and harm against their own kind due to technology.
Rather than educating ourselves about the self-defeating consequences of hatred and intolerance, school districts across the country are beginning to ban books, removing them from school curriculum, or are opting out of required reading that tell the history of the Holocaust. For several decades, these books, which have been extremely helpful in exposing the evils of anti-Semitism and the roots of hatred, are suddenly too much (in the eyes of some) for our young people to handle. Books such as The Diary of Anne Frank, or Maus are being removed from schools and libraries. Paige Shoshannah, a Berliner and an educator on the Holocaust, says that these two books are “remarkable because they capture the personal, intimate human experience of a genocide, the Holocaust, that stripped humanity from Jews (and those the Nazis considered to be Jews).” Shoshannah fears that by removing or censoring these personal stories, especially as the numbers of survivors are dwindling, that the Holocaust will be reduced to statistics, names, and places, which fails to put real life human faces on those who suffered from such evils. There are those who complain about the sexual content in the books; but I can assure you that having heard the stories, those aspects won’t be a blip on the screen in the minds of most youth compared to the actual human catastrophe which occurred. Many fear that this censorious approach to education will take us backward rather than forward in times when such education is needed the most. Amazingly, during the period leading up to the Nazi persecution, Jewish authors were being banned, and libraries were burned for books that were considered “Un-German.” According to heyalma.com, works by Bertolt Brecht,
Sigmund Freud, Erich Kaestner, and others were destroyed. This is not to suggest that those who choose not to allow their children to read certain books are being hateful (Certainly, this is not the case,) but we should consider what we may be losing in the process if we become so suspicious that we go to the extremes.
Paige Shoshanna makes a dynamic and heartfelt statement about why we need more reading on this topic during this last generation of survivors. She declares, “We cannot bring back those who died in the Holocaust. We cannot keep alive the remaining survivors. But we can fight so that libraries can include their stories in all their human vividness, warts and all. An empty library — or even an emptying library — is an act of historical distortion and censorship. Erasing the complicated parts won’t help us remember; it will doom us to forget.”
By: Eric Betts
Assistant Director, Curtis Coleman Center for Religion Leadership and Culture at Athens State University