On this week in which we commemorate the Holocaust, a disturbing report came out: memory of the events of the Holocaust are fading, and fewer people in younger generations know basic facts about the destruction of European Jewry and Nazi Germany.
It is disturbing, and on one level not surprising—the more we temporally move away from important events, the less we feel a connection to them. And in the case of the Holocaust, as with each passing year more survivors die, there are fewer and fewer people to serve as witnesses and share first-hand accounts.
Which is why we can not accept this fading memory as a fait accompli. For us as Jews, who are connected to these events both physically and emotionally, remembering the events of the Holocaust comes naturally. Our concern must be with others outside the Jewish community, who aren’t directly connected to these events, so that it doesn’t fade from the general collective consciousness.
I wonder at times, if my child was not connected to these events, if he did not get Holocaust memory handed down to him as part of our family transmission of Jewish identity, what exposure would he have had? What would he have gotten at school? What would he know?
I can guess anecdotally that the surveys and reports are true. My father, who in his retirement has spent much time as a volunteer and docent at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, has noted to me that many on his tours lack basic knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust. There is comfort in the fact that by visiting the museum they are seeking it out, but without that visit, there is a chance that they would continue on with limited exposure.
And yet, now more than ever, as memory of the Holocaust is reportedly fading, is memory of the Holocaust vital. Hitler’s rise to power and the institution of the Nuremberg Laws remind us what can happen when democratic institutions fall to the whim of a person bent on power. The story of the St. Louis, the ship from Germany turned away at U. S. shores, remind us of the perilous journey of refugees in search of safe haven. The fact of Auschwitz and Dachau remind us of what can happen when we dehumanize and scapegoat a group of people that is perceived to be the “other” and the “enemy.”
So we commit to keep the memory alive. In our spiritual practice, we read the story of the Torah every week of every year—an ancient text that in many ways embodies a time from which we are so far removed. Yet by continuing to read it, it continues to be relevant, and thus stays a part of our collective memory. We read of the events of the Torah, but more importantly we read of their meaning.
As we continue to move farther away from the actual events of the Holocaust, we continue to tell the stories so that they too become part of our collective memory. And we will remember not only the events, but more importantly their meaning, both for us as a Jewish people and as a world community.