My father-in-law, born in Vienna, was forced to flee with his parents after the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938. They fled first to Belgium and then to France. In France, my father-in-law became separated from his mother, whom he never saw again. She perished in Auschwitz. My father-in-law, just 13 years old, and his father were deported from France to Auschwitz in 1942 and they spent almost three years in some of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps until liberated by American troops in 1945.
Over 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. It is estimated that 3 million Jews survived. Now, there are fewer than 100,000 remaining survivors. In a decade, there will be almost no one left.
As personal memories are fading, public knowledge of the Holocaust is also diminishing. A 2018 U.S. poll from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 4 out of 10 people did not know what Auschwitz was, and among millennials, this proportion rose to two-thirds. In addition, nearly a third of those surveyed believed that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was far fewer than 6 million.
Another Holocaust Remembrance Day has come and gone. What I thought about most on that day last month were the hateful chants, including “Jews will not replace us!” by the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who invaded my city, my university and my synagogue in Charlottesville, in August 2017.
The growing movement of Holocaust deniers, fueled by the extreme-right is tied directly to the steep recent rise in antisemitism that is occurring around the world, including the U.S. The Anti-Defamation League has been tracking antisemitic incidents in the U.S. since 1979. As noted in its report on “Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2018,” 2018 was a particularly active year for right-wing extremist killing. There were at least 50 people murdered in the U.S. last year and every attack—from Parkland to Pittsburgh—had a link to right-wing extremism. In an NPR interview with Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt regarding the results of the above-mentioned poll, Professor Lipstadt noted that she was surprised and depressed by the results of the survey. She stated, “Hatred and the ability to express hateful opinions has become much [more] accepted in the past two, three years in the United States…We’re seeing white supremacy, white nationalism, which brings with it of course not just racism but also antisemitism becoming a much more accepted force in this country.”
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, reminded us time and time again to never remain silent in the face of evil.
Elementary and high schools must promote inclusive environments and provide anti-bias education and hate crime prevention. History classes need to teach about the Holocaust and the events leading to it. This should include teaching about antisemitism. As noted in a 2018 report by UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, “If antisemitism is exclusively addressed through Holocaust education, students might conclude that antisemitism is not an issue today or misconceive its contemporary forms. It is appropriate and necessary to incorporate lessons about anti-Semitism into teaching about the Holocaust because it is fundamental to understanding the context in which discrimination, exclusion and, ultimately, the destruction of Jews in Europe took place.” Public officials and law enforcement must respond quickly and effectively to hate crimes, and develop deterrence and prevention strategies in all communities.
Teaching about the Holocaust doesn’t have to cost a dime. The U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has not only the largest collection of testimonials of Holocaust survivors and resources, including videotaped testimonials, textual narratives, and essays, but numerous resources for educators, including detailed curricula and lesson plans all available for free on their website. The USC Shoah Foundation houses a collection of almost 55,000 testimonials of Holocaust survivors and witnesses—the largest archive of its kind in the world. The Fortunoff Archive at Yale University houses more than 4,400 testimonials of individuals who had first-hand knowledge of Nazi persecutions, including one offered by my father-in-law.
My father-in-law suffers from frequent nightmares and not a day goes by on which he does not think about his family who perished and the suffering he and his father endured at the hands of the Nazis. But he keeps this to himself and is not bitter, though he too is very troubled by the rise in antisemitism in the US and around the world, having seen first-hand what it can lead to. Testimonials like his need to be heard. The memory of the Holocaust must never fade.
Fern R. Hauck is the Spencer P. Bass, MD Twenty-First Century Professor of Family Medicine,
Professor of Public Health Sciences, and Director of the International Family Medicine Clinic at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville and is a Public Voices Fellow with UVA’s OpEd Project.
The views expressed here are solely the author’s.