Holocaust Memory 75 Years after Auschwitz
Dr. Karen Shawn
Dr. Ruth Bevan
Dr. Vera Bekes
Dr. Karen Shawn
Associate Professor of Jewish Education at Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration
Founding editor of PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators
Anti-Semitic speech and actions continue despite the many thousands of words we’ve spoken about the dangers of hate speech. We are raising our voices, pleading our case, and sending a clear message, we believe, fighting anti-Semitism through lectures, interviews, conferences, education and rallies around the country.
We plan myriad talks for January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, especially auspicious this year because it marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We teach about the death camp, tell of its legacy and discuss its meaning for the world.
We voice the anxiety and grief we feel, the pall of fear that hangs over communities where schools and synagogues are now locked and guarded. We wonder aloud if we are missing the signs German Jews missed. Is now the time to make aliyah? Are today’s acts of violence against us a harbinger of worse things to come? We call out for help, for signs of positive change.
Who, though, is hearing our laments? The perpetrators are not listening.
In Parashat Mikeitz, passuk chaf aleph, Yosef’s brothers say to one another, “Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother; we saw his heartfelt anguish b’hitchaneno eileinu ve’lo sha’manu—when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed.” But in the earlier Parashat Vayeishev, when the brothers stripped him of his tunic and cast him into the pit, we read nothing about his cries; there are no anguished pleas. Why, then, would the brothers now refer to Yosef’s cries?
Dr. Aviva Zornberg, in her book The Murmuring Deep, suggests that Yosef did scream, but the brothers turned a deaf ear to him; their unreceptive hearts prevented them from hearing him. To be heard, words must reach the heart; only then can there be action. Not until the brothers faced the guilt of their past and recognized the tragedy of what they had done were they able to hear and take responsibility for the cries that Yosef actually did utter 22 years before.
Zornberg writes that “for the . . . power of language to work . . . a listening Other is required.”  If no one is listening, it’s as if nothing was said. We don’t hear Yosef’s pleas until the brothers’ hearts are finally able to hear them.
Thus, it makes sense that in Parashat Vayigash, Yehuda, almost as if he learned this lesson, says to Yosef, “May your servant speak a word b’aznei—in my lord’s ears”—meaning, according to Rashi, may the words penetrate, may they convince you—in other words, may they reach your heart. Yosef’s anguish was finally heard. His pleas from the pit were not new; it was the brothers’ hearing them now that was new. That made all the difference.
If the perpetrators in our world are not hearing our cries, it is as if we haven’t called out. How can we learn to speak so haters can hear, to teach so that they can learn? How can we help such people become the “listening Others” we so desperately need? In our troubled world, how can those who are escalating tensions and fomenting hatred balance the pain of their own fears and profound frustrations with understanding the devastating effects of their misplaced anger? What can we say, and how and to whom can we say it, so that those who rail against us can stop and hear us and then care enough to change?
As this milestone memorial day coincides with the frightening increase in violent words and actions against us, may we have the zechut, the merit, to rethink the content and manner of our pleas and reconsider our target audiences. May we find and reach those who need to hear us. May we find the words that can and need to be heard by those who are causing the chaos. May we help them to discover their own hearing ear and listening heart.
1. Zornberg, A. G. (2009). The murmuring deep: Reflections on the biblical unconscious. New York: Schocken Books, p. 306.
Dr. Ruth Bevan
Professor Emerita of Political Science, Yeshiva University
January 27, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, ending World War II on the European front in 1945.  Royalty and heads of state from countries around the world will be present for a commemoration ceremony to begin at 3:30 p.m. (Polish time) in front of the camp’s “Gate of Death.” Andrzej Duda, President of the Republic of Poland, will open the ceremony. More than 200 Auschwitz survivors are expected; some will give testimony. Ronald S. Lauer, founder and chairman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, will deliver the memorial address.
The theme of the commemoration is remembrance. In the words of one survivor at a previous commemoration, “If survivors forget, the present will lose its conscience!” As stated at Yad Vashem in Israel, “The Holocaust, which established the standard for absolute evil, is the universal heritage of all civilized people.” Upon the initiative of Israel, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 60/7 on November 1, 2005, during its 42nd plenary session, declaring January 27 of each year International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 
Yet presently in the United States and in Europe, we see the rising tide of renewed anti-Semitism. On January 5, 2020, some 25,000 New Yorkers walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest recent violent acts of anti-Semitism: the shooting in a Jersey City, New Jersey, kosher market and the terrorist assault on a Jewish family in its own home in Monsey, New York. A meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, on Jan. 22, 2020, of dozens of presidents, premiers and potentates was scheduled in advance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day in order to emphasize the threatening outburst of anti-Semitism today in Europe and North America.
How should we understand this dialectic of Holocaust remembrance and renewed anti-Semitism?
For most individuals, non-Jews in particular, the Holocaust is, at best, a collective memory, not a personal memory. Collective memory is what we learn in history class about a group experience. It lacks the emotional vibration of memory based on personal experience. For this reason, in the Passover Haggadah, Jews are instructed to imagine themselves as slaves in Egypt, to take personal ownership of the liberation experience. Most non-Jews have no personal experience with a Holocaust survivor. Many have no interaction with Jews altogether. The Holocaust remains remote. Faceless.
Consider this contrast. Two years ago, I visited the Oskar Schindler Factory at Lipowa 4 in Krakow, Poland. The wife of my husband’s cousin had been on Schindler’s list. I have wonderful memories of Else, now deceased. Visiting Schindler’s factory was, for me, a pilgrimage. Approaching the factory, I was unprepared for what I encountered. In the window were pasted rows of photographed faces of those who had been on Schindler’s list. Suddenly, staring sadly into nowhere, Else’s photographed face confronted me. I shall never shake that electrifying moment of encounter.
Identity politics in the United States is pulverizing the sense of a common American heritage—and thus a common collective memory. There are now in the political arena competing narratives of discrimination with their own memory banks. Yet what narrative of discrimination can compete with that of the Holocaust? Jews and their narrative become, therefore, unwelcome “competitors.” In order to delegitimize Jews in the political arena, competitive “tribal” groups propagate the idea that Jews are white, meaning they are part of the oppressive social power structure. Moreover, anti-Semitism masquerades as anti-Zionism. A recent public statement in the United States that aroused heated controversy charged Israelis/Jews with using Nazi methods against Palestinians. This line of attack has become prevalent on American university campuses and in mainstream Europe.
The politicization of group narratives evidenced itself already with the liberation of Auschwitz: Stalin’s Red Army liberated the camp, yet the Soviets were building the Gulag prison system in Siberia to which many Jews would be sent.  For the Soviet Communists, remembering the Holocaust meant remembering fascist atrocities. They did not consider their own actions against Jews as anti-Semitic but rather as anti-reactionary (anti-religion)!
Thomas Hobbes reminds us that human behavior operates out of fear for security in an environment of scarce resources. We are moving into a new technological era with mounting insecurities about jobs, the preservation of lifestyles and the saliency of the power hierarchy. Democratic governance is being tested. The internet facilitates the easy transmittal of “fake news” and hate-mongering. In such times and with such means, individuals rampage. Groups scramble to secure themselves. Violence lurks around the corner.
Jews must remember what they themselves have learned from the devastation of the Holocaust in order to act to safeguard themselves now and in the future.
1. The United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, ending World War II on the Pacific front.
2. The U.N. Resolution encourages the development of educational programs about the Holocaust, rejects any denial of the Holocaust, condemns all manifestations of religious intolerance or violence and advocates for the preservation of Holocaust sites.
3. Many refuseniks, those Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union but were refused exit visas, were sent to the Gulag.
Dr. Vera Bekes
Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology, Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology
The Holocaust did not end when the camps were liberated, not even when those who survived arrived back home, or to what was left from what they once called home. It did not end even when the majority of survivors managed to build new lives, marry, have jobs, raise children. The impact of the Holocaust will not end when the last survivor passes away because its long-term psychological impact has been passed along through families, generations and communities.
We know from psychological research that despite the damage done by the Holocaust, the vast majority of survivors were able to lead reasonably happy lives while carrying their indescribable memories and demonstrated remarkable resilience. Still, the memory and psychological impact of the Holocaust has been passed down through generations, leading to both certain vulnerabilities along with a general resilience in survivors’ offspring.
Recent studies have shown for example that Holocaust survivors’ children in Israel are more optimistic about the future compared to others and that they also handle stress better in general. So, it seems that what has been transmitted is not the pessimism or hopelessness that one might expect from the trauma but a certain sense of optimism and strength.
At the same time, new traumatic events have also been found to trigger more anxiety among survivors and their offspring, which might be explained by the potential of having some Holocaust-related deep wounds re-opened. Resilience and vulnerability have been found to coexist in survivors and their offspring; in fact, resilience often appears to originate in the very vulnerability the individual has.
Psychologists working with survivors of trauma know the healing power of recounting and acknowledging the horrible life experiences they have experienced as well as the power of creating a sensible trauma narrative about how and why the trauma happened, about its personal meaning and how it has changed the survivor.
In the Jewish tradition, remembering traumatic events has been a way of conquering their impact. Memorializing persecutions and difficult times is a central theme in various Jewish holidays. These are often events of communal remembrance, recounting and acknowledging the horrors that happened and the ways Jews were able to overcome the difficulties along with describing how the event ultimately changed the path of the Jewish people, providing a communal celebration of triumph, survival, and continued life.
The events that survivors had to endure during the Holocaust are deeply personal and individual, but the trauma affected all humanity. As a societal trauma, its impact is felt on the level of whole societies, and healing and recovery can only happen if the active processing is ongoing not only on the individual but on the community and societal levels as well. Besides public remembrance, the injustice and horrors of the Holocaust need societal level acknowledgement by witnessing and honoring the suffering and pain that it caused and understanding that genocide affects all humanity, not only a specific group.
Remembering the Holocaust does not only mean to remember the event itself and “never forget” but also to acknowledge its psychological and societal consequences.
Academic Advisor and Special Projects Manager, Stern College for Women
A milestone anniversary is an ideal time to reflect on the past and look to the future.
The United Nations General Assembly specifically chose the date of Auschwitz’s liberation, seventy-five years ago today, as the date of Holocaust remembrance around the globe—the day on which the deadliest of camps was evacuated, and the remaining survivors, barely clinging to life, seized the opportunity to begin anew.
Holocaust survivors such as my grandfather confronted their deep personal pain by dedicating themselves to sharing their testimonies as a way to educate the next generation. This forward-looking approach helps make some meaning of the horror by educating others in hopes of preventing further atrocities. In fact, the UN resolution establishing a day of remembrance directly references this goal: “to help to prevent future acts of genocide.” 
Can Holocaust education prevent genocide? Many scholars of transitional justice believe it can. This field of human rights focuses on societal recovery after violent conflict through approaches beyond the traditional justice system, including the promotion of collective memory for reconciliation and healing and education to avert reoccurrence. 
At Stern College for Women, our students have had the opportunity to take an active role in their education, creating a documentary film featuring survivor testimonies through the Names, Not Numbers program. They have shared how the course instilled in them a sense of duty to share survivor stories and how it inspired them to feel greater empathy toward victims of other genocides and to take action in the face of inhumanity.
In a time of rising anti-Semitism—here in New York and abroad—this work is especially critical.
Holocaust education can be key to promoting the protection of persecuted groups, especially if taught with a focus on the need for bystander action. It is harder to rationalize inaction after learning the stories of those who made the moral choice to intercede. 
In the case of the most destructive genocide in world history, scholarship has shown that had more bystanders intervened, the Holocaust would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to perpetrate.  Our own Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, former director of the Righteous Among the Nations department at Yad Vashem, has done much to highlight the significance of righteous rescuers during the Holocaust.
Seventy-five years after Auschwitz, Holocaust commemoration and education is as crucial as ever. If we are inspired to act, perhaps the next seventy-five years will see a more tolerant world.
1. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on the Holocaust Remembrance (A/RES/60/7, 1 November 2005)
2. Bickford, Louis, “Memoryworks/Memory Works,” Chapter 14, Transitional Justice, Culture, and Society ed. Clara Ramirez-Barat ICTJ Social Science Research Council NY 2014, 493; Dulitzky, Ariel, “Memory, an Essential Element of Transitional Justice,” Peace in Progress, Colombia After Violent Conflict, No 20 – April 2014, 2-3; Minow, Martha, The First Global Prosecutor: Promise and Constraints, chapter: “Education as a Tool in Preventing Violent Conflict: Suggestions for the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court,” University of Michigan Press (2015), 349
3. Dudai, Ron, “’Rescues for Humanity’: Rescuers, Mass Atrocities, and Transitional Justice,” Human Rights Quarterly 34 (2012), 25-26.
4. Bickford, Louis, “Memoryworks,” 496.
Creator and Producer of “Names, Not Numbers©” Intergenerational Holocaust Oral History Film Documentary Project
Fifteen years ago, on November 1, 2005, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution introduced by Israel and designated January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Co-sponsored by 104 other states, it reaffirms that the Holocaust will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice. The resolution rejects Holocaust denial and encourages countries to develop educational programs that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to prevent future acts of genocide. It also condemns religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence based on ethnic origin or religious belief.
It is of no coincidence that the date chosen for Holocaust Remembrance Day is also the day that the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the deadliest extermination camp, with an estimated 1 million Jews murdered there. This day is to remind us of the horrific crimes committed in the Holocaust with the purpose of preventing them in the future.
In 2005, Dan Gillerman, Israel ‘s 13th Permanent Representative to the United Nations, in introducing the resolution, wrote: “The responsibility becomes ever more urgent in the face of an alarming increase in global acts of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, racism, and religious intolerance. Oppression, de-legitimization of peoples, and discrimination continue. The horror of the Holocaust has, to our collective shame, not prevented other genocides from occurring. These facts compel us to establish mechanisms that will ensure that future generations will never forget the Holocaust and its lessons.”
Where are we today, 15 years after this resolution and 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz? Anti-Semitism is rampant throughout the world, and the words of Primo Levi are more prophetic than ever: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.”
Now, the best Holocaust Remembrance on January 27, 2020, must be through education.
In the United States, only 12 states have mandatory Holocaust education. Now is the time to develop serious academic programs that educate our students about the Holocaust. Studies made on Holocaust education have found that the most meaningful and effective way to educate youth is through one-on-one conversations with survivors. The opportunity to hear firsthand testimonies to the students’ own questions is both profound and transformative. When students will sit across from a survivor, they quickly understand the importance of not being a bystander.
Youth can make a difference in preventing future acts of genocide in the world, wherever they may occur. They can be inspired by and follow in the footsteps of many valiant individuals who have taken action against intolerance and oppression. The future of the world is in their hands.
But this future will not be a bright one unless youth are educated, unless they are taught to appreciate and respect differences, unless they know how to prevent prejudice and hatred, intolerance and injustice. The first step is to mandate serious Holocaust and genocide education in the other 38 states.
I want to commend Yeshiva University for establishing the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and Dr. Shay Pilnik, who will be its first director. The Center’s consequential mission will be to train both school and university educators in the field of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, leveraging the uniquely qualified faculty and resources of Yeshiva University’s undergraduate, graduate and professional schools and affiliates to extend Holocaust education to people of all ages and backgrounds.
I also invite you to see two examples of work done by the students in the program: Dr. Moshe Avital and Sonia Klein, both of whom survived Auschwitz.