We mark Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. One year ago, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation by the Red Army, I stood at those infamous gates. That’s where millions of Jews were pushed off cattle cars and stood in line for a military doctor to make the “selection” … right to slave labor … left to death in the gas chambers. I know at times, I have wondered if I had been born in Hungary where my grandparents were from, instead of the United States, would I have been one of those Jews in line for the selection. I think most Jewish people have pondered this at one time or another.
Last year at Auschwitz, there were thousands of people, government leaders from 50 countries and, most important of all, over 200 Auschwitz survivors and their families. This year, Auschwitz is silent.
When we left the camp last year, people thought, perhaps mistakenly, that after hearing the eloquent stories of some of the survivors, the world would wake up to where the terrible impact that the hatred of Jews ultimately leads. But, over the past year of an unprecedented worldwide shutdown, there is a stark reminder that COVID is not the only virus that has infected humanity. I am not a medical scientist, but it strikes me that antisemitism is a comorbidity of COVID-19.
Tel Aviv University found that the pandemic sparked an 18 percent rise in antisemitic incidents throughout the world. In the UK, incidents against Jews have tripled between 2013 and 2019. In Austria, birthplace of Adolf Hitler, the country had to adopt a national strategy to combat antisemitism after 550 incidents were recorded in 2019. In Germany, the incidents have doubled in the last three years. Even in my own country, there has been a 14 percent rise. Like COVID, no nation is immune.
In a striking connection to the distant past, when Jews were blamed for the Black Death in the 14th Century, cartoons in Middle East newspapers showed the virus being spread by jet planes with a the star of David emblazoned on its tail. These images also appear all across the internet.
I have always said that education is the only way to stop the spread of hatred against Jews. A recent survey offered some depressing facts: 63 percent of young people in America are not even aware that six-million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Almost half – 48 percent – could not name a single concentration camp and, most shocking, 11 percent blamed the Jews for the Holocaust.
Today, education is more vital than ever, but it still doesn’t seem to be enough. Today, I think there must be a more forceful and universal response to antisemitism.
I have called on Germany to lead all nations in not just condemning antisemitism and all forms of hatred, but passing strict laws that would make life very difficult for anyone broadcasting this hatred. Every country on every continent should step up and not just pledge to do it, they should actually do it. This has to be one topic that we can all agree on. And when countries go out of their way to promote this hatred, as Iran has done with its antisemitism Holocaust conferences, they should be shunned by all nations.
Perhaps now, the UN could stop its fixation on the only Jewish nation on earth (another stark form of antisemitism in my opinion), and strongly condemn this upsurge of hate.
The world has to be reminded, apparently, again and again, that while Germany went after Jews as soon as the Nazis took power in 1933, just 12 years later, cities across Europe were left in ruins and over 60 million human beings were killed. As the late Rabbi Sachs of Great Britain has said, the hatred that begins with Jews, never ends with Jews.
So on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wish I could offer some upbeat, good news on this topic. I cannot. I am struck that the world’s attitudes towards Jews has not grown better. They have become worse, which suggests that we must redouble our efforts in fighting this hatred. We must encourage all people, everywhere, to have zero tolerance for hatred – against Jews and anyone else.
Yes, we must educate a younger generation about what antisemitism is and where it leads, but that process must be expanded to reach all people of all ages. Just as the world is making huge efforts to vaccinate everyone against the COVID virus, people need to be constantly inoculated against the other, much older virus, that never seems to go away.
I am always reminded of my first trip to Auschwitz with a former inmate, Elie Wiesel. As we were standing near his barracks, he said in thoughtful voice, “You know, people think the opposite of love is hate. It’s not. It’s indifference.”
Elie was so right. It is not just active hatred that we must continue to fight. It’s indifference and that’s a lot harder to eradicate.
Ronald S. Lauder is the President of the World Jewish Congress and the President of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.