This past Wednesday evening and Thursday we observed Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Throughout the world Jews took the opportunity to pause, to attend Holocaust memorial programs (including our community’s own) or simply to remember the events which resulted in the murder of six million during World War II. For seven decades, “never forget” has been a rallying cry of the Holocaust remembrance movement. The emotions evoke sadness and regret as the victims of the Shoah are recalled (yesterday we had a special reading of the names in Pioneer Place).
Throughout the world, the message on Yom HaShoah is that we must prevent this from ever happening again; that anywhere evil, hatred, bigotry or prejudice rears its head, we must identify, condemn and denounce the perpetrators. Yom HaShoah takes on a universal message. "Never again" means nowhere in the world can we allow another Holocaust.
Jeff Jacoby, a child of Holocaust survivors and columnist for the Boston Globe wrote several years ago, “The survivors have at least this reassurance: What happened to them will not be forgotten. Or will it? The historical importance of an event in its own time and in the decades that follow offers no guarantee that it will be remembered in the next century, let alone for many centuries after.”
Sadly, a survey released Thursday, on Holocaust Remembrance Day may prove Jacoby correct. The study found that many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened — and this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials (people ages 18 to 34).
Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.
Holocaust remembrance has not prevented the onset of Holocaust forgetfulness. Many have a deep and personal connection to the Holocaust, and always will. But the world may not. Eventually, everything is forgotten. Perhaps even the worst crime in history.
Despite the gaps in the respondents’ knowledge, the study found an overwhelming consensus — 93 percent — that all students should learn about the Holocaust. Unfortunately, Holocaust education is not required in the State of Oregon for school-age children. Positively, Holocaust denial remains very rare in the United States, with 96 percent of respondents saying they believe the genocide happened.
“The issue is not that people deny the Holocaust; the issue is just that it is receding from memory,” said Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which negotiates restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs. “People may not know the details themselves, but they still think it is important. That is very heartening.”
Worldwide, the estimated number of living Holocaust survivors has fallen to 400,000 (we have approximately 200 survivors in Portland), according to the Claims Conference, many of them in their 80s and 90s. And Holocaust remembrance advocates and educators agree that no book, film or traditional exhibition can compare to the voice of a survivor, yet one day in the not so distant future none will be left to tell their stories.
Our community is proud to have the Oregon Holocaust Memorial that serves as a permanent reminder of the Shoah. Plus, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education documents and shares the stories of the Holocaust from the perspectives of survivors, refugees, and their descendants via a permanent exhibit, educational presentations, teacher workshops, classroom book loans and special event programming. By engaging audiences and building awareness, we utilize memories and lessons from the past so people can learn, feel, think critically, and identify daily choices that counteract the discrimination and oppression of today.
The Jewish Federation also helped fund several teens who are right now visiting Poland and then Israel on the March of the Living learning firsthand about the atrocities of the Holocaust.
I suggest you read a beautiful Op-Ed written by David Schizer, CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, one of our funding partners overseas, rescued Jews and supported resistance during World War II. When the war ended, JDC cared for survivors in displaced persons camps. Today, JDC provides lifesaving care to over 50,000 survivors in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Our own local Jewish Family and Child Service provides wonderful supportive care and services to over 100 survivors.
As I shared several years ago, we cannot demand that the world remember, yet we can stand, proud and strong, as a symbol of our survival, of our perseverance against the odds and of living proof of the irony that the Jews, not our enemies, prevail. So it has been in the past. So is it today. And so may it continue into the future.
Finally, I want to make you all aware of two very important community events next week. The Mittleman Jewish Community Center (MJCC) will host a special service for Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day for those who lost their lives in the struggle that led to the establishment of the State of Israel and for all military personnel who were killed while in active duty in Israel’s armed forces) on Tuesday, April 17 at 7:00 p.m.
The next evening, Wednesday, April 18, our community will celebrate Israel’s 70th year of independence, Yom HaAtzmaut, with activities and Israeli food for people of all ages at the MJCC from 5:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. Come out and join us.