Journalists visiting a renovated barrack at Auschwitz, Dec. 1, 2016 (Photo/JTA-Cnaan Liphshiz)
Journalists visiting a renovated barrack at Auschwitz, Dec. 1, 2016 (JTA/Cnaan Liphshiz)

As Holocaust memories fade, our world becomes more perilous

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When I traveled to France and Germany three years ago at the request of a Bay Area foundation to evaluate the landscape for Jews and Israel advocacy in two of Europe’s most important and besieged Jewish communities, one of my clear takeaways was that the post-Holocaust stigma against anti-Semitism is wearing thin and is a significant contributing factor to the rise of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel activity.

That reality was clearly on the mind of German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she recently visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. She said, “Nothing can bring back the people who were murdered here. Nothing can reverse the unprecedented crimes committed here. These crimes are and will remain part of German history and this history must be told over and over again to ensure that we remain vigilant … to ensure that these crimes are not repeated, to ensure that we fight anti-Semitism.”

Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The simple passage of time, combined with the dramatically shrinking number of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust, has contributed to a sense of release from responsibility.

In Germany for example, while the government remains committed to its sense of collective responsibility, there is little doubt that the power of Holocaust memory as a fail-safe warning against expressions of anti-Semitism is eroding. Germany’s domestic intelligence estimates that the number of far-right extremists in the country grew by a third in 2019. The far-right AfD party is now represented in the German parliament, and there has been a surge of anti-Semitic attacks.

In the rest of Europe, another contributing factor is a desire to assuage a sense of guilt over the Holocaust by ascribing to Israel the label of oppressor state. The decades-long run of sympathy that derived from the world’s collective sense of shock and guilt helped dull public anti-Semitic outbursts, though the disease can never be completely eradicated.

Now, it is increasingly clear that fading memory is also having an effect at home in the U.S.

In the postwar period, admiration for the new State of Israel, the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965 absolving the Jews of responsibility for the killing of Jesus, and the rapidly expanding integration of Jews in American society all contributed to a long period of diminished anti-Semitism. In short, by the second half of the century, anti-Semitism moved from the mainstream of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin to the margins of society. According to a recent Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans said they would vote for a Jew as president in 1937 compared with 92 percent today. And a Pew survey in 2017 found that Americans felt more warmly toward Jews than any other religious group.

But now, with the intensified rhetoric in our society and related explosive political polarization, a dramatic rise in serious and violent anti-Semitic incidents, and disturbing signs of younger Americans’ lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, it is imperative to look at the implications of the passage of time. Two-thirds of millennials cannot identify what Auschwitz was and 22 percent have not heard of or are not sure if they have heard about the Holocaust. One of the major dams built to protect against rising anti-Semitic waters — the post-Holocaust stigma against expressing anti-Jewish sentiment — is cracking.

There is little doubt that the power of Holocaust memory as a warning against anti-Semitism is eroding.

The implications are profound: anti-Semitism potentially becoming more acceptable in the mainstream, fewer constraints on perpetrators in a climate where hateful rhetoric has received license, and Jewish institutions required to take security to a new level.

This is not to suggest we are looking at 1930s Germany. Most of our political leaders condemn hatred and bigotry, including anti-Semitism, although many can and must do more. Law enforcement is consistently engaged in reducing threats and responding to incidents. And we have strong non-Jewish allies and neighbors who repeatedly join with us to express solidarity and outrage in the aftermath of attacks. The outpouring of support after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh made clear that we have a broad array of friends whom we can count upon in our hours of need.

But we must be concerned about the dam’s erosion. While there are many other factors contributing to growing anti-Semitism, we need to acknowledge the connection between the loosening of constraints and the dramatic decline of memory if we are going to be effective in preventing further cracking. So what can we do?

Promote Holocaust education initiatives around the country that have taken a visionary approach by laying the groundwork for Holocaust education in the post-survivor generation. From hologram presentations of survivors to use of now third-generation grandchildren of survivors, there are very important efforts being undertaken. These efforts should be supported and the best practices studied and emulated.

Convene conversations among Jewish and non-Jewish community thought leaders regarding the correlation of growing anti-Semitism and fading memory and identify new ways to shore up the dams. This should include younger Jews and non-Jews to gain insights into how best to reach their peers in this new era.

Look inward as well as outward to remind ourselves about one of the key lessons painfully learned from the tepid and divided response of the American Jewish community to the tragedy unfolding in Europe: the imperative to establish an institution in our Jewish communities charged with bringing together diverse voices to seek consensus and advocate on issues of vital concern so that never again would we squander our potential impact. That institution is the Jewish Community Relations Council, which is also charged with building bridges and alliances between the Jewish community and potential partners in the non-Jewish community. Both roles — consensus and coalition-building — are more critical than ever if we are going to prevent the dam from weakening further and even strengthen it for the future.

Reach out to the survivors and liberators in our communities who still have the strength to share their extraordinary life experiences to ensure that their stories have been properly and fully captured if they are willing, and to reassure them that their life’s work in preserving the memories has been a blessing and will continue.

There are, of course, many other major points to make about the surge of anti-Semitism. But a factor that cannot be ignored anymore is the suddenness with which memory can fade and the added vulnerability that accompanies that dimming of responsibility.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Doug Kahn
Rabbi Doug Kahn

Rabbi Doug Kahn is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. The views expressed are his own.