How do we remember?

Most people in this world do not reflect on the Holocaust regularly, hence the evidence of humanity’s continuing course of genocide and mutual destruction over the last 60 years.  There is not just one generation, but many, whose comprehension of the Holocaust is rather dim.

When I was a young, idealistic 17, I experienced the newly opened Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. I didn’t come away depressed, instead I was engerized toward making whatever changes were needed so that mass murder like that didn’t happen again. Many years later, I’m jaded on humanity’s ability to curb hate and intolerance. It invades every culture, every generation. Because I know of what’s happened since the Holocaust (in Tibet,  the Punjab, Guatamala, Bangladesh, Equatorial Guinea, Laos, East Timor, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Cambodia,  the Balkans, and the Sudan), I have much less faith in people being able to avoid genocide.

Jaded or not, I’ve made time to present the Holocaust to my students. Some were aware of it, most were not. We read Night and other memoirs; we studied propaganda; we examined the lives and experiences of Tennessee survivors, thanks to the Tennessee Holocaust Commission’s work putting together Living On; we watched the local documentary Paper Clips and visited the memorial in Whitwell, TN; and then we were blessed to meet Arthur, a local survivor who visited with my students and shared his story. I want them to know the evil people are capable of intentionally doing to each other.

We are lucky, I suppose, to live in a world where those intent on preventing history from repeating itself create museums like the one in D.C. or the memorials at the European death camps. It’s good that people make films and write books about the lives lost and those who survived.

As a teacher of the past, I’ve seen first-hand how the farther an event is from the present, the less a student is interested in it. We are about to enter the 7th decade after the Holocaust. While History Channel episodes and recent movies help keep young minds aware, it’s very easy for them to change the channel to something more pleasant.

Interestingly enough, some survivors’ families are making certain they will never forget the Holocaust. Jodi Rudoren’s article this week in the NYT  reveals how several descendants are making their bodies a memorial, getting tatoos of the particular number branded on those family members who survived Auschwitz. These living generations are a testimony to surviving the hatred and persecution, pledging to never forget what happens when good people do nothing.

Questions to ponder:

  • How do we ensure that each generation not only learns about the Holocaust, but is willing to make every effort to prevent it?
  • But how will future generations remember once all the survivors are gone?
  • Are museums, memorials, documentaries, and books enough to remember all the lives lost to hatred?
  • What kind of approach do we take when we encounter those who believe the Holocaust never happened?
  • What else can be done?

Comments welcome, please thoughtfully consider your response.

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