When meeting survivors of the Holocaust, we can hear their concern about the future of Holocaust remembrance in the world.They know they are less and less numerous to speak about the unbelievable horrors they lived. They know the Holocaust is always further in the past and therefore more and more difficult to be emotionally transmitted. They know many other crimes are happening every day on TV screens. They know the attempts to distort their history, and that the word “genocide” is easily used and misused today. There is recognition that genocide is absolute Evil, but the word is also used as a way to trivialize and to erase its sharp specificities.
Survivors, victims and heroes have indeed many opinions, but most of them want that their past may help avoid new genocides. They want us to know that they were in front of ordinary men and women who became monsters. They want people to understand and prevent the processes that happened during the Holocaust so that their past will not be the future of their grandchildren.
These deep concerns were at the very origin of the research programs, the museology and the pedagogy in the project of memorial in the Camp des Milles, near Marseille, the only French internment and deportation camp still intact, one of the very few in Europe. When I had the honor to discuss with Elie Wiesel, Simone Veil, Serge Klarsfeld and other survivors about this project, they agreed that the future of Holocaust remembrance will more and more rely upon reflection as much as on emotion, which may weaken in the coming decades. They were supportive of commemorations and museums to remind the world of the facts. But they know that the knowledge of old battles and suffering is not sufficient for their purpose, which is “Never again!” For that to be, people must understand that the Holocaust speaks about humankind in general and therefore about themselves and about today’s societies.
That was the main reason why we decided to present in our museum a kind of balance between emotion and reflection, i.e. not only the historical facts and the camp itself, but also a large and original reflective sequence devoted to the scientific results of a multidisciplinary approach (sociological, political, philosophical) about the processes which led to the Holocaust and those that help in resisting.
THE MAIN CHALLENGE was to understand if the lessons from the Holocaust were specific to a period, a place, some persons and circumstances, or if these lessons are universal and therefore useful for people today. We could then easily find similar processes in other genocides, among them the Tutsi in Rwanda, commemorated on this Holocaust Remembrance Day. When usual tensions in societies become exacerbated, namely due to economic, social, political or moral crises, a spiral may be triggered with three main steps, fueled by antisemitism or racism and xenophobia. This societal movement is very dangerous albeit still stoppable. Collective and institutional factors interact with widespread psychosocial behaviors such as blind yielding to authority, passivity more than indifference, group effect, conformism, egocentrism, jealousy and fear.
Qualitative and quantitative indicators were also defined to better understand the actual position of a society in the general process defined by historical experiences.
The Camp des Milles has attracted more than 800,000 visitors in eight years, with a 20% increase per year in visits and participation in workshops about antisemitism and the processes leading toward genocide. Most visitors are young people from all origins. Others include policemen, judges, teachers, social workers, trade unionists and more.
An international network about memorials and citizenship was built by the Camp des Milles on this intellectual framework, and partnerships were built with Yad Vashem, Auschwitz, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and African and Arab universities.
In order to remain a living part in civilization, like other powerful stories during the centuries, Holocaust remembrance should develop as a strong reflective reference built for acting in the present and not only an emotional and necessary reverence for the past of suffering and heroism.
As Elie Wiesel said in 2006: “The Camp des Milles must now become a place for education... I am convinced that it will become an important, indeed very important place for the next centuries.”
Prof. Alain Chouraqui is emeritus director of research in the French National Center for Scientific Research, founding president of the Camp des Milles Foundation, and the UNESCO Education for Citizenship, Human Sciences and Shared Memories chair. He was awarded the 2016 Seligmann Sorbonne Prize against racism, injustice and intolerance for his book Pour résister – À l’engrenage des extrémismes, des racismes et de l’antisémitisme (To resist – The spiral of extremism, racism and antisemitism).