By Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and member of Facing History's academic advisory board
In April, the New York Times reported that Holocaust education is lacking among younger generations. Some can't even identify what Auschwitz was. It is an alarming jolt highlighting the importance of memory and legacy as the years distancing history from the Holocaust grow wider and wider. We must ask why should the world remember the Holocaust, which began more than 75 years ago and enveloped almost all of Europe. Because it happened, we must understand the evil, the systematic evil, the state-sponsored evil, industrialized killing, mass murders that were the essence of the Holocaust. We must understand its emblematic invention, the death camp, and the people who served in these camps. Their assignment: mass murder. Some were sadists and criminals—people unlike us—but many more were ordinary men trying to do their best, to fulfill their obligations. Some were even professionals—lawyers and doctors, ministers and economists—who used the skills they had learned to become more efficient killers. Some were enthusiastic, others more reluctant; all became killers.
Because it happened, we must understand the circumstances of the victims who had to make choiceless choices between the impossible and the horrific, and who faced conditions of such utter powerlessness that they could do so little to determine their fate. Yet even though they were powerless, they were far from passive. Resistance took many forms, courage manifested itself in many ways, arms were but a last stand.
And we must understand the indifference of neutrality. In the struggle between powerless victims and an overwhelmingly powerful killing machine, neutrality is anything but neutral. Indifference is a death sentence. The bystander is also an enabler.
We can learn so much about evil in studying the Holocaust that it leaves us numb, that despair overtakes us, that we sense our own helplessness. Indeed, the Holocaust was an atrocity, senseless and anguishing. But there were a few, a precious few men, women, and even children who opened their homes and their hearts and provided a haven for the victims, a place to sleep, a crust of bread, a kind word, a hiding place. What makes such goodness possible? Why were some people immune to the infection of evil? We call them upstanders. These are the people whose deeds we may wish to emulate, who can serve as models for how we want to behave and what we want to become.
The Holocaust began slowly. Age-old prejudice led to discrimination, discrimination to persecution, persecution to incarceration, incarceration to annihilation. And mass murder, which culminated with the killing of 6 million Jews, did not begin with the Jews nor did it encompass only the Jews. The violations of one group's rights are seldom contained only to that group. Scholars have identified stages of the Holocaust; it is far easier to stop a genocide in its early stages of persecution and discrimination before dehumanization and mass murder ensue.
We must understand the fragility of democracy: however precarious it is ever more precious. Yet it can be undermined when leaders show a weak commitment to democratic rule, when political opponents become enemies, denied all legitimacy, when violence is tolerated and ultimately employed to quash dissent, when civil liberties and freedom of the press are restricted, and when democratic institutions are weakened.
Sadly, the issues raised by the Holocaust are not consigned to our past. Genocide, a word invented to give voice to the fate of the Armenians in World War I and the Jews in World War II, a crime outlawed by the United Nations, has recurred since 1945, even today. Refugees fleeing oppression and near certain death are still unwanted in most places on the globe, inter-religious hatred flourishes; so too, intra-religious conflict.
The study of the Holocaust is not easy, emotionally or intellectually. To understand this event, we have to confront death, yet the study of these deaths is in the service of life; the study of this evil is intended to strengthen decency and goodness.
The Holocaust shatters faith—faith in God, secular faith in human decency, faith in the inevitability of progress, and even in Martin Luther King Jr.’s teaching that the arc of history bends toward justice. The Holocaust provides few answers and raises many questions, but these questions invite moral struggle against that evil.
The call from the victims—from the world of the dead—was to remember. Today, we hear from those who were there and those who were not, the urgency of memory, its agony and anguish, the presence of meaning and its absence. To live in our age, one must face that absence as well as that haunting presence.
Preserve the memory of the Holocaust by connecting students to this history through Facing History’s seminal case study Holocaust and Human Behavior. Originally published 40 years ago, this program meant for middle and high school students was updated in 2016 to reflect the latest scholarship on the Holocaust. By using the book of readings, primary sources and professional development, teachers can take students on a journey through profound questions about human behavior.
Learn more about the Holocaust and Human Behavior Program: https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/program
A version of this post was originally published on Facing History and Ourselves’ blog, Facing Today. Facing History and Ourselves is an international education nonprofit whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry.
Michael Berenbaum is a writer, lecturer and teacher consulting in the conceptual development of museums and the development of historical films. He is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) where he is also a professor of Jewish Studies. He is a member of Facing History's academic advisory board.