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The Perils of Forgetting

On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a historian shows how the ignorance and abuse of Holocaust history fuels the global resurgence of anti-Semitism

Alvin H. Rosenfeld
November 08, 2019
Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

In today’s impassioned political wars over the politics of racial hatred, it is no surprise that words and images from the Nazi period are regularly invoked. Hitler analogies have long been with us but they are now especially popular, with President Trump’s face often photoshopped alongside the Nazi Fuehrer’s. While we are not yet witnessing anything as widespread as the “swastika epidemic” of 1959-60, which saw the proliferation of thousands of swastikas in more than 30 countries, the Nazi symbol is making a comeback with a proliferation of swastikas defacing synagogues, Jewish homes, and cemeteries in the U.S. Swastikas were on proud display at the infamous 2017 rally in Charlottesville where far-right marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us.” But such imagery is not confined to white nationalist circles, it has appeared as well among high school students who, perhaps ignorant of the history of Nazi atrocities, fool around with Nazi symbolism.

The backdrop for this revival of Nazi symbolism is the global resurgence of anti-Semitism, including in the United States. This resurgence, less than a century after the end of WWII, calls into question the long and widely held assumption that popular knowledge of the Holocaust—what we have come to call Holocaust education—would inhibit the return of anti-Semitic passions in the public sphere. But, to work, this assumption in turn requires that Holocaust education is substantive and effective, amounting to more than the mere instrumentalization of historical tragedy. Here the conclusion is stark: Though the debate over matters related to racism, anti-Semitism, and the nature and legacy of fascism may be impassioned, there evidently has been a major, ongoing failure in transmitting meaningful and lasting knowledge about the Holocaust to a great many Americans.

To grasp the extent of this failure and its consequences, the questions we must ask are: What does this generation of Americans know about the Holocaust? How much do they care about it? And what are the connections between the incipient mainstreaming of today’s anti-Semitism and the weakening or fading of Holocaust memory?

These are not new questions, but they came to my attention in a new and unexpected way during a recent visit to Berlin. I was in the city in June to participate in a conference titled “A Transatlantic Wave of Anti-Semitism? Jew-Hatred in Europe and the United States” (more about this conference later). What provoked the questions about Holocaust memory, however, was not anything I encountered in Germany but, rather, news that reached me there about a contentious debate back home about “concentration camps” on our country’s southern border.

Reference to such camps was made by New York congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (hereafter AOC), who also spoke of American “fascism” and invoked “never again,” invariably calling to mind the Nazi camps. She used this language in a highly charged denunciation of President Trump’s immigration policies. Her words triggered a highly charged debate that played out across mainstream and social media and became the national issue for many days in June. Like much else in today’s emotionally and politically overwrought times, it was intense, divisive, and yielded just about nothing of any lasting value. Besides spurring predictable clashes by Democratic supporters and Republican opponents of AOC, the debate also involved an unusual public dispute between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a group of over 400 Holocaust scholars. Shortly after AOC’s comments, the museum released an official statement “unequivocally rejecting efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” This prompted the group of scholars to issue a public statement of their own rebuking the museum for its “fundamentally ahistorical” position and appealing for it to be rescinded. The museum has neither withdrawn its original statement nor replied directly to these scholars, but on July 18 it issued a clarification of its mission and work.

As for anything like a coherent “Jewish position” on AOC’s references to “concentration camps,” there was none; at least there was nothing resembling a Jewish consensus on the legitimacy of comparing America’s migrant detention centers, however cramped and miserable they may be, to the Nazi system of industrial genocide, with its shooting squads, mobile killing machines, and gas chambers. Like other things that American Jews fight over these days, the internal Jewish debate on this issue was discordant. Some voices decried AOC’s use of Holocaust terminology, believing it grossly overstates the case on America’s southern border and trivializes the Holocaust; others argued that her words don’t matter, action does, and political action needs to be taken without delay against America’s current “fascist presidency” (AOC’s words).

To those who insist that clarity of language is essential to search out and make responsible judgments on the truth of things, AOC’s incendiary words were way off the mark—a flamboyant and inappropriate application of Holocaust terminology to a situation that does not resemble the Nazi persecution and mass murder of the Jews. Others took a different view, like New York Times columnist Charles Blow who responded to the debate in a column that concluded, “we can use any form of fuzzy language we want.” All that really mattered according to Blow: “Donald Trump is running concentration camps at the border. … What are we going to do about it?” It was a position shared by many at the time, including some outspoken Jewish activists who argue that political imperatives override a need for the precision of language that maintains the integrity of historical memory.

One question arises: Who are the rightful, responsible, and effective guardians of such memory? Does the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have more standing to adjudicate in such debates than members of Congress, activist rabbis and New York Times columnists. And, relatedly, what is the historical basis on which such freighted analogies are to be judged? In other words: What is the level of actual historical knowledge of the events of the Holocaust, including the conditions of concentration camps, possessed by the various parties weighing in as experts in this debate?

In 1993, the American Jewish Committee published the results of research into what Americans know about the Holocaust. The findings were not encouraging. When asked, “What does the term ‘the Holocaust’ refer to?” 38% of American adults and 53% of high school students either did not know or offered incorrect answers. Sixty-five percent of American adults and 71% of high school students seemed not to know that some 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis and their allies. Presented with the names “Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka,” 38% of the same adults and 51% of the high school students failed to recognize these as the names of Nazi camps.

These dismal results date back a quarter of a century. What about now?

On Yom HaShoah of this year, the Conference on Material Claims against Germany released the results of a new survey of Holocaust awareness in the United States. Major findings of the survey, conducted in February 2018, include:

– Nearly one-third of all Americans (31%) and over 4-in-10 millennials (41%) believe that the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust was 2 million or less.

– Almost half of U.S. adults (45%) and millennials (49%) cannot name one of the over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust

– More than 4-in-10 respondents (41%) do not know what Auschwitz was. Millennials are even less familiar with Auschwitz, as two-thirds of them (66%) cannot identify what Auschwitz was.

– Seven out of 10 Americans (70%) say fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to.

It is impossible to know where AOC and her almost 5 million social media followers fall within this broad spectrum of Holocaust knowledge, ignorance, and indifference. How her references to American “concentration camps” resonate with them and with the public at large is anybody’s guess.

In common parlance today, the term “concentration camps” inescapably refers to Nazi Germany and that country’s vast array of incarceration sites, labor camps, transit camps, and murder camps. Camps have also been used by various other countries at different times and for different purposes. In the Soviet Union, Cuba, South Africa, the United States (which interned Japanese Americans during World War II), present-day China, and elsewhere, they have served as detention centers for suspects, class-aliens, and those regarded as enemies of regimes in power. The Nazi regime itself used camps differently during the early years of World War II than during the later years. (For the most authoritative study to date of the evolution, function, and scope of the Nazi camp system, see Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps).

Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi camps, was the site of the largest mass murder in human history, but a shockingly large number of Americans evidently know almost nothing about it. If its name registers at all with them, therefore, it is likely to do so metaphorically, not historically. That the term connotes something generically “evil” is clear, but the specific details of who and what brought such evil into being and who its principal victims were are facts that seem to be lost on most.

What we confront here, then, is a serious disjunction between the language used and the reality it is meant to summon up. Nevertheless, the language is in wide use, especially in political rhetoric. As illustration, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a close political ally of AOC, purported to be baffled by the flap that her friend’s words created about American “concentration camps.” As Rep. Omar put it: “This is very simple. … There are camps and people are being concentrated. … I don’t even know why this is a controversial thing to say.” Whether her inane formulation is naïve or calculated, the camps in all of their historical specificity disappear in the emptiness of Omar’s words.

Things are not so simple in Berlin, where the memory culture runs far deeper and the country’s history of wartime atrocities takes material form in multiple ways. During my stay in the city, I lived in an area once heavily populated by German Jews. The impressively ornate Oranienburgerstrasse synagogue, once Germany’s largest Jewish prayer house with 3,000 seats, was within easy walking distance of my hotel. One enters it, as one does virtually every Jewish site in today’s Europe, only after passing through an omnipresent police security check. Once inside, the history of this place becomes evident at once. Largely destroyed, the synagogue has been partially restored as a carefully designed memorial museum that presents in riveting detail the nature of Nazi atrocities against the Jews. One passes through the building’s large, but now mostly empty, rooms and finds on display nothing so much as ruin. The richness of the German Jewish past is painfully conveyed by its palpable absence. In viewing the grandeur of what once was and the semblance of what is attempting to replace it (a small minyan regularly gathers in a room on the building’s uppermost floor for Shabbat and Jewish holiday prayers), one visits this place and weeps.

Beyond the remains of the synagogue on Oranienburgerstrasse, there are physical signs throughout the city of the violent end of the Jewish life that formerly flourished here. In addition to the massive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, centrally located in the heart of Berlin, the past comes uniquely alive through the pervasive presence of Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones” or “stumbling blocks”) that are visible on pavements in the neighborhoods where Jews once resided. Small, inscribed, commemorative brass plates embedded in front of the buildings where Jews had lived or worked, the Stolpersteine are literally at one’s feet as one walks through Berlin. Accurately called “the world’s largest decentralized Holocaust memorial,” more than 7,000 of these engraved stones sit on the city’s pavements. More are added to them every year, and not just in Berlin but in cities elsewhere in Germany. They individualize the fate of Nazi victims, mostly Jews, and clarify, succinctly but unmistakably, the meaning and purpose of “concentration camps.”

A typical inscription reads (in English translation): “Here lived/Paul Abraham/born 1886/deported 1943/murdered in Auschwitz.” Or: “Here lived/Margarete Abrahamson/born Jacobsohn/1901/deported 1943/murdered in Auschwitz.” As pedestrians go about their business in the city, these “stumbling stones” are there to remind them of the names and fates of the Jews who once inhabited the same spaces Berlin’s residents currently occupy. In this respect, they intrude Holocaust memory inescapably into everyday German life.

Far from being metaphorical, Auschwitz and the numerous other camps named on these plates–Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen, et al—signify real places where real people were sent to be murdered. Their names are given and, when known, so are the dates of their deaths. Initiated in 1992, more than 70,000 Stolpersteine have since been embedded on the pavements of German cities and in urban areas of other countries where Jews had lived. They are a powerful testament to the will to remember history at its very worst.

And yet, such remembrance, for all of its inherent importance, is no guarantee that the worst of the past will not be repeated. Like other European countries today, Germany is experiencing a rise in anti-Jewish hostility. According to official figures released in May, there were some 1,800 anti-Semitic incidents in the country in 2018, or a rise of almost 20% over the previous year; that figure, which may be low, as many incidents go unreported or are underreported, includes 62 violent anti-Semitic attacks. As for the perpetrators of the escalating crimes against Jews, German authorities recently acknowledged that many are carried out by radicalized Muslims as well as by figures on the extreme right. The gunman who sought to massacre Jews in the synagogue in the eastern city of Halle in October was among the latter. Add to these acts of aggression the steady airing of anti-Israel passions by some on the political left, and the picture becomes still more troubling—and not just in Germany but in numerous other countries as well. Hence the need for the kind of conference in Berlin that assembled scholars from England, France, Germany, Hungary, and the United States to deliberate on resurgent anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic.

My task was to discuss the situation in America, where hostility to Jews has recently taken on brutal dimensions with the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway and frequent street attacks against Jews in New York and other cities. American history has never been free of anti-Semitism, but violence on the order we are seeing today is unprecedented in the experience of most living American Jews. In addition, a reawakened anti-Jewish animus suddenly has taken on a prominent political dimension as well. The midterm election brought to the House of Representatives not only AOC but other new and headline-grabbing figures, some of whom (Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib) have openly questioned the national loyalties of American Jews (accusing them of “pushing for allegiance to a foreign country”) and spoken mockingly of Jewish money controlling American foreign policy (“It’s all about the Benjamins, baby”). They have also actively promoted BDS, comparing it dubiously to boycotts of Nazi Germany, South Africa, and the Soviet Union, and opposed America’s long-standing support of Israel. All of this has set American Jewish nerves on edge and makes many realize that they are no more immune to anti-Semitism in this country than European Jews are in the places where they live.

In short, some of the taboos long believed to be in place against the return of openly expressed hatred of Jews and others are no longer holding firm. Are AOC’s remarks about “concentration camps” in Trump’s “fascist” America of a piece with these developments? Is she a party to Jew-hatred?

Few terms are more damning than “Jew-hater” or “anti-Semite,”and the charge should never be made lightly. It accurately describes Robert Bowers and John Earnest, the killers who, respectively, shot up the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad synagogue in Poway. The manifestos they drafted and posted before they carried out their killings reveal that both are pathological anti-Semites. That description may not be apt for the street thugs beating Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn’s religious neighborhoods, but, whatever their motives, their actions are clearly anti-Semitic. The “Sieg Heil” troops feeling newly energized in white nationalist, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi groups qualify as well, as do those obsessively and maliciously dedicated to demonizing and delegitimizing Israel and calling for the Jewish state’s liquidation. Others can also be included on such a list—unfortunately, a growing one—but AOC’s name probably should not appear. In her case, what seems to be involved is not active Jew-hatred but a careless disregard for the history of Jew-hatred at its most extreme.

How well she knows this history is less important than her appropriation of its gravity to score political points about a contemporary matter that, for all of its urgent problems, is simply not comparable to the incalculable degradation and millionfold death that befell Jews during the Holocaust.

The importance and benefit of insights yielded by comparison and analogy require that attention is paid to the character, scale, and intention behind the events being compared. It is clear that America needs a more effective immigration policy and more humane ways of responding to people seeking asylum. But neither in character nor scale are America’s overcrowded and poorly run migrant holding centers akin to the “concentration camps” as AOC and countless other American politicians suggested. Then there is the aspect of intention: The Nazi camps invoked in such analogies served the goals of a state-sponsored, systematic program of genocide. El Paso is not Auschwitz and should not be confused with it.

Elie Wiesel, who knew the Holocaust on his flesh and wrote about it for the remainder of his life following his liberation from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, understood what he had witnessed to be a unique event, one without precedent or analogy. He insisted it be understood in those terms—as a series of specific crimes against a specific people for no other reason than they were who they were: Jews. Under Hitler and his allies, that was enough to mark them for mass slaughter. At the same time, Wiesel was alert to the universal implications of the Holocaust for post-Holocaust societies and warned that “what threatened one people in the past could recur to threaten another people or, indeed, all humanity.” While he always maintained a focus on the particularity of the Holocaust, he argued as well for its contemporary significance. “Human suffering anywhere,” he was convinced, should “concern men and women everywhere.” When he received the Nobel Peace Prize, in fact, it was in recognition of the role he played over decades on behalf of oppressed people of all kinds.

Primo Levi, who likewise survived Auschwitz and wrote about it over four decades, similarly regarded it as singular: “a unicum, both in its extent and its quality.” At the same time, he, too, saw its universal implications. He believed the Holocaust was “the greatest crime in the history of humanity” and summed up what he had learned about it in the last pages of his last book: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.” Yet, at the end of his life, Levi came to believe that his efforts were probably futile. The story of all he had lived through, written about, and warned against would, he feared, appear extraneous to later generations. A crucial story for him, it would not be for them. They have moved on.

Is that where we are today? It is too soon to know for certain. Serious education about the Holocaust continues through a range of media and in a variety of settings, and yet widespread ignorance about the Nazi genocide of the Jews exists in sizable segments of the population. In addition, a general impatience with hearing about the Jews and their sorrows is apparent. Other peoples have suffered, too, this notion goes, so why so much attention on the Jews? Add to this sense of surfeit outright denial on the part of some—as with the Florida high school principal recently fired for responding to a parent’s concern about the school’s Holocaust curriculum that “not everyone believes the Holocaust happened”—and the exploitative use of Holocaust words and images for both entertainment and political purposes, and Levi’s growing despondency becomes tragically salient.

Primo Levi is no longer with us. Nor are Elie Wiesel, Jean Améry, Imre Kertész, Paul Celan, and numerous other survivor-witnesses who wrote so compellingly about their experiences during the years of Nazi terror. Their words, however, remain and are invaluable testimony to what Levi called “the memory of the offense.” The offense was to the very idea of being alive, particularly if one was a Jew. To the Nazi mind, Jews were considered examples of life unworthy of life. And so they were slaughtered by the millions.

Especially at a time of rising anti-Semitism, it is the obligation of our generation to keep alive the particular memories that Levi, Wiesel, and others have passed on to us and to share them with others in careful and responsible ways. Anything short of that is bound to lead to the continued diminishment and distortion of a past whose memory should be preserved as faithfully as possible, for its own sake, as an act of fidelity to the dead, and also as a warning that what happened can happen again.


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Alvin H. Rosenfeld is the director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the editor, most recently, of Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives.