Fighting Antisemitism today: Learning from the Holocaust

In the context of rising antisemitism, lessons from the Holocaust cannot be forgotten.

Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila (center) attends the March of the Living on May 2, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila (center) attends the March of the Living on May 2, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As I write these words, the Jewish world is still in shock after the brutal machete attack at a Hanukkah party in Rockland County, New York. My Facebook feed has coverage of young Jews with machine guns patrolling Monsey and Guardian Angels walking through the streets of Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Boro Park and Flatbush.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo categorized the attack as an “act of domestic terrorism,” and said, “Let me be clear: Antisemitism and bigotry of any kind are repugnant to our values of inclusion and diversity and we have absolutely zero tolerance for such acts of hate.”
This past year saw deadly antisemitic attacks in the US. The accused gunman in the April shooting at the Chabad of Poway, San Diego, said, “I was defending the nation against Jewish people.” In September 2019 alone, there were 163 reported antisemitic incidents, up from 108 over the same period in 2018 – an increase of 50%. Antisemitic incidents make up a majority of reported hate crimes in New York City.
While antisemitism in the US and Europe – including violent attacks – are on the rise, ambivalence and ignorance of the Holocaust is also extremely worrying.
A recent Claims Conference survey found 70% of Americans say people are less bothered by the Holocaust than they used to be and 58% think that the Holocaust could happen again. More disturbing are the 41% of millennials who say they believed that 2,000,000 or fewer Jews were killed – nowhere near the 6,000,000 – and 22% who are not sure or have not heard about the Holocaust.
It is in this context of rising antisemitism and increasing indifference toward the Holocaust that some 40 global leaders will be attending the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem on 23 January – marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Holocaust Memorial Day. The event, titled “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism” is being organized by the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, in cooperation with Yad Vashem, under the auspices of the president of the State of Israel.
President Reuven Rivlin said about the purpose of the gathering, “We will come together to think about how to pass on Holocaust remembrance to generations who will live in a world without survivors, and what steps we must take to ensure the safety and security of Jews – all around the world.”
Rabbi Shai Finkelstein, an educator and rabbi of Nitzanim synagogue in Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Report, “As Holocaust survivors are passing away, we, as teachers have a crucial responsibility. We must ignite the hearts and the minds of our students to be more mindful and thoughtful of the many lessons of the Holocaust. We need to teach about what people can become when there is apathy and hate, how people react when they face evil and how we must lead the world in confronting evil. We need to imbue in the hearts and minds of our students the values of strength, faith, ability to overcome and the ability to rebuild and not to give up.”
Finkelstein added, “As we witness the rise of antisemitism, we must lead the world in facing evil and defeating it. The survivors taught us to live, believe in a better day and rejuvenate our commitment to Jewish values and continuity.”
Rivlin referred to the challenge of how to pass on the lessons of the Holocaust to a “world without survivors.” This question of how to teach the Holocaust after the generation of the survivors is no longer with us, is a question facing Yad Vashem and Holocaust educators around the world.
I met with Shulamit Imber, Pedagogical Director of the Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies and the Fred Hillman Chair in Memory of Janusz Korczak, to discuss how Yad Vashem passes on the stories and memories of survivors.
Imber says, “We must tell their stories – in a way that transmits meaning, relevance and values. People need to feel something when they hear the testimonies. The face-to-face encounter with survivors leaves a sense of responsibility and empowerment that they must do something – they feel compelled to act. They were touched by them – now that survivors are passing on, we must find ways which create that meaningful level of dialogue – which retains that sense of authenticity and truth.”
“We can’t replace a survivor – the loss will never be replaced,” Imber continued. “However, we have developed projects aimed at keeping their memories alive – attempting to ensure a deeper level of meaning is also transmitted – not just facts. Interaction with the survivors themselves created a sense of authenticity; now, as we prepare for a time when they will no longer be with us, we must find meaningful methods to teach their stories in an equally authentic way.”
Imber spoke about four strategies Yad Vashem implements to keep the memories of survivors alive.
Autobiographic journey
Projects using film with survivors taking them back to their hometowns and childhood – which, in Imber’s words, “add meaning and legitimacy to their stories as they show them as real people.
“You see where their first love was, where they went to school and synagogue and played with their grandparents,” she adds.
These movies often made more of an impact than the testimonies the same survivors had given 20 years earlier – as the films showed meaning behind the story.
The second section of the film showed where they were persecuted – the concentration camps, where they were shot, and if they had been sent to Ukraine or another country.
The third part of the film showed their lives after the Holocaust – how they rebuilt their lives – they are seen with their children and grandchildren. Imber said these film-based autobiographic projects gave an opportunity for survivors to speak about their lives in a way they never had done before – beyond the plain facts and figures. “That’s really the key,” she said. “To pass on a meaningful message that will help educators teach the Holocaust with depth – that will remain with their students for life.”
Documented Holocaust archives
“There are hundreds of diaries with personal accounts that were discovered,” Imber says. “People think that Anne Frank is the only one – there are hundreds of diaries like hers. These personal diaries which document the starvation, chaos and destruction – are a very powerful tool to teach the Holocaust, as students can relate to them and will find them more interesting.”
Yad Vashem will be producing a special book this Holocaust Remembrance Day called, Kolam Shamati (“I heard their voices”), which will contain these personal accounts.
Films with animation and art
“In using animation with films, we hope to make the accounts more engaging and real,” Imber says. “We debated the use of animation in our teaching materials – on the one hand, we thought it would be effective, but on the other, we didn’t want to use animation if this would trivialize or simplify what happened and the lessons we are trying to teach.
“We decided to use animation, as this would bring the memories and testimonies alive,” she concludes.
Student projects
“We have both Jewish and non-Jewish students from all over the world visiting Yad Vashem and our International School. We get them to do projects only after they have learned about the Holocaust. We encourage them to be really creative – using posters, images, poetry and song – to express their own thoughts, interpretations and insights. Again – whatever gives more meaning is better.”
Imber says they stay in touch with the students who visit their school and give them prizes and awards for their projects at Yad Vashem, some of which are displayed and used for teaching.
I asked Imber whether she thought that Holocaust Education could be used to combat rising antisemitism.
She says, “Certainly, Holocaust education makes you sensitive to the language of antisemitism, hate and racism. However, Holocaust education alone can’t fix the ills of a sick society. Holocaust education can’t replace values in society – it’s a warning. ‘If a racist goes to Auschwitz, he won’t stop being a racist – it will be a short-term shock,’” she said.
Finally, Imber addressed the role of social media in transmitting the lessons of the Holocaust. “As the generation of the survivors is passing on, we must find a way of transmitting their authentic message to young people using a language they will engage with,” she said. “I am very wary of using social media. The Eva.Stories [which presented on Instagram the life of a fictional Jewish girl murdered in a concentration camp by imagining she had documented her story on the platform] reflect why I am hesitant with regard to the use of social media. When I, personally, read her diary, I saw Eva as a deep, insightful and intelligent girl, full of wisdom. However, the Instagram portrayal of Eva did not reflect this – rather it showed her as a regular girl, whom other girls could relate to. While the Instagram post of Eva got millions of views – on the other hand, her personality was distorted – this is really problematic for me.
The Instagram page of Eva.Stories, which dramatizes a teenager’s Holocaust story to attract young viewersThe Instagram page of Eva.Stories, which dramatizes a teenager’s Holocaust story to attract young viewers
“Social media can be powerful and, we know, that’s where the young people are and we need to reach them there – but only as part of a broader program run by our experienced educators. We cannot allow ourselves to trivialize the lives of our survivors and make difficult, complex stories seem simple and shallow.”
I also spoke with Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, the British United Synagogue’s Israel rabbi, who has guided British, American and Australian groups in Poland over the last five years and discussed how educational trips to Poland are central in passing on the lessons of the Holocaust to future generations.
Sylvester says, “Trips to Poland provide an opportunity for participants to witness the rich Jewish life that was created in Poland over the course of a thousand years. A brief walk around the Warsaw cemetery, the synagogues of Cracow or the cinema in Kazimierz Dolny offers an opportunity to tell the stories of world-renowned rabbis, scholars, film stars and writers.”
He continues, “A trip to Poland also forces on us an opportunity to confront the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. As we travel, we read the testimonies of the perpetrators, the bystanders and the victims. It’s an opportunity to connect with our history, confront everything that happened and wrestle with the difficult questions of identity and belief that inevitably come up. There is nothing quite like standing in these places with a survivor whose own story disturbs and inspires. As Elie Wiesel said, everyone who hears from a witness becomes a witness.”
Sylvester concludes, “In this era of Holocaust denial, it’s increasingly important that we learn about what happened, we absorb as much as we can of the horrors, we testify about what we have seen and we renew our commitment to building strong Jewish communities.”
The International March of the Living is the best-known Holocaust educational program, which brings individuals from all over the world to Poland and then Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hatred. It started in 1988, and since then over 260,000 people, from 52 countries have taken the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I led school groups to Poland for years as part of the Holocaust curriculum I taught in my role as a history teacher in the UK before moving to Israel. Clearly, participants were moved and able to see for themselves, ask questions and get involved in discussions they would not have had, had they not visited the concentrations camps.
Going physically to Auschwitz and seeing with their own eyes the slogan at the entrance – “Arbeit Macht Frei” – the train tracks and carriages, the piles of shoes, hair, suitcases and glasses, and sensing that deafening silence, I personally feel had an impact on my students, which was way beyond what they could have experienced from sitting in the classroom and watching videos.
Holocaust educators, however, are increasingly using social media and online resources to ensure the lessons of the Holocaust are passed on. Here are some examples of methods used:
Educators are able to find resources and online courses on numerous websites such as those of the Anti-Defamation League, Anne Frank House, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Netflix and Amazon provide educational films including “Schindler’s List” and “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution,” a six-part documentary series.
Instagram – the very popular social media platform – is being used to teach future generations of the Holocaust. Eva.Stories, for instance, received hundreds of millions of views. Podcasts are being used to teach the lessons of the Holocaust. Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies started a Holocaust survivors’ testimony podcast using the archive’s 4,400 recorded testimonies.
New apps are being used to perpetuate the memories of survivors. This past summer, 170 Jewish-American and Israeli-American teenagers took part in a five-day hackathon developing ways of passing on the lessons of the Holocaust. This project, organized and coordinated by the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, was an attempt to engage with young people and see how they would best connect to the lives of Holocaust survivors. The tabs on the app – which uses artificial intelligence – are the means through which users are able to learn about the survivors’ lives and their personal stories. Using the “chat” feature, survivors can be messaged and engaged with. Most importantly for fighting Holocaust denial, the “share” feature on the app is designed to increase awareness about the need for Holocaust education throughout the US.
E-newsletters and YouTube accounts are also being used by Holocaust educators. Yad Vashem uses e-newsletters and moving testimony of survivors on their YouTube account.
Another creative example of how online resources are being used to teach the Holocaust is a project being undertaken by the University of Haifa. In the Spring of 2018, the university opened an exhibition titled “Arrivals, Departures: The Oscar Ghez Collection” in its Hecht Museum. In 1978, Dr. Oscar Ghez de Castelnuovo (1905-1988) donated 137 works of art to the Hecht Museum to establish a “Memorial to Jewish Artists, Victims of Nazism.” These works of art consisted of paintings, drawings, and sculptures, and the collection showcases the works of 18 Jewish artists who lived and created art in Paris before the Holocaust.
Emil Fackenheim said that the 614th commandment is to live as Jews and not use the facts of the Holocaust to give up on God; the 615th, in my view, is to pass down the stories of the survivors and ensure the values and morals they taught us live for eternity. We have an obligation to transmit their testimonies and memories in a meaningful way that engages, moves and empowers.