What we learned from Auschwitz

The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which will be marked January 27 on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, comes at a time when some are asking: is it happening all over again in Europe?
We know the rational answer to that question. As bad as the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe is, there is no comparison to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Then, a party committed to the destruction of the Jewish people gained total power in Germany and eventually controlled most of Europe, enabling the systematic murder of six million Jews and millions of others in the Holocaust.
Today, governments in Europe are not espousing anti-Semitism; they are countering it, even if not strongly enough.
If it isn’t the Holocaust – and, if it isn’t helpful to understand today’s immense challenges by comparing it to the Holocaust -- does Auschwitz present any lessons at all for today?
I would say there are several.
First is the role of hateful ideologies in producing violent, anti-Semitic behavior. While today’s anti-Semites in Europe do not control governments, they are able to mobilize individuals committed to violence on the basis of fantastical notions about the unique evil of Jews.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, convinced Germans not merely to dislike Jews but to believe that they had to protect themselves from the evil, all-powerful Jew who was poisoning the German body politic. So too today, the Islamic extremists, whether it’s Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, or Hezbollah, see the Jew as the source of evil in the world.
The Hamas charter not only repeatedly calls for the destruction of Israel. It claims that Jews are responsible for all the ills of the modern world going back to the French Revolution.
When Al-Qaeda decided to attack the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, it was only after they considered hitting Jewish targets in New York. Even the World Trade Center was seen as partly a “Jewish” target since it was deemed that Jews control world commerce, per the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.”
Once it is decided that Jews are the source of evil, then it is almost a responsibility to act against them. And so attacks on Jewish civilians, who represent evil in ordinary form, become permissible.
We must fight this ideology of hatred. We must not equivocate in calling it what it is and in rallying people of all faiths against it.
A second lesson is that shame about what anti-Semitism could lead to, which manifested itself with the appearance of the first pictures of Auschwitz after the liberation, is an important inhibitor of anti-Semitism.
It does not cure the world of the disease of anti-Semitism, which is so deeply embedded and serves so many purposes, but it does affect the level and intensity of anti-Semitic behavior.
For decades, anti-Semitism did not explode as a phenomenon, partly because of this shame. As time passes, and the immediacy of the Holocaust recedes, it makes more important than ever the need to develop new and creative ways to reach younger people about its horrors.
I remember hearing some years ago from Rita Sussmuth of the German Bundestag, who talked of the need for new and emotional methods in reaching each generation of young people who are further and further removed from the events in World War II. We must never give up the struggle to explain what anti-Semitism can lead to.
A third lesson for me is the intimate connection between anti-Semitism and the health of a democratic society. Whether it is the expression that Jews are the canary in the coal mine or Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous lines about the consequences of not standing up in the face of evil, Auschwitz is not only about the evils of anti-Semitism, but also how its going unchecked invariably endangers all of society.
The fight against anti-Semitism should never be seen as simply a moral struggle. It is a practical one, as spoken so eloquently by Prime Minister Manuel Valls to the French parliament after the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket.
How, he asked, could French society not speak up and be outraged when Jews were insulted, when vandals violated Jewish institutions, when protestors sought to invade a synagogue? His message was clear: All of France needs to stand up early and loud when Jews are under attack. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is vital for the well-being of French society.
The murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo inevitably follows the murder of three Jewish children in Toulouse. The targeting of Jews in Nazi Germany invariably led to the efforts by Hitler to dominate and enslave the world.
So as we observe the 70th year of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Tuesday, the importance of knowing what happened there and of transmitting it to the next generation is more urgent than ever.
Threats to Jews today are greater than they have been since those darker days. And those threats, as taught by the lessons of Auschwitz, threaten all of us.