International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on Jan. 27, 1945. It is a day that the United Nations set aside so that the world would never forget the tragedy that defined the word “genocide.”
The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered. Hundreds of thousands of others were targeted, including Roma, people with disabilities, Poles, gay men, Germans of African heritage, Jehovah’s Witnesses and political dissidents.
By observing this day of remembrance, we honor the survivors and victims of the Holocaust. We give ourselves the opportunity to reflect on the moral responsibilities of individuals, societies and governments. On this day, we challenge ourselves to actively fight hate in all its forms.
Plato wrote: “Without struggle, there is no progress.”
It may be that we can’t stop hate in the form of racism, antisemitism or religion- and identity-based violence. It may be that the struggle itself is our work and is something we must face in every generation. It’s a struggle that defines what the best of humanity can and should be.
This struggle must include fighting against the hatred of Jews or antisemitism that defined the Holocaust. Antisemitism is on the rise in the United States and around the world, from terror on the streets of Charlottesville to vandalism in Jewish cemeteries to hostages held at a synagogue in Texas.
It is not “normal” to see a Nazi flag. It is not “normal” to see graffiti with swastikas. We must remain outraged. Jewish people in the United States and around the world are personally experiencing antisemitic incidences. Ask any Jewish college student what it feels like to be Jewish on campus today and you’ll hear stories of hiding emblems that represent Judaism, fear of speaking out and the painful silence of peers. Antisemitism is now emboldened and on the rise in ways we haven’t seen in decades.
Antisemitism is becoming normalized in our media and in conversations or, worse, ignored by the greater community. Samantha Powers, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, “Antisemitism is like the canary in the coal mine.” It’s always been “just the beginning.” We should fight antisemitism because it’s morally wrong, and it must be included in all efforts by civil societies to fight racism, religion- and identity-based violence.
Studying the Holocaust provides us with a vision of what could happen if we are not diligent in our struggle to protect the human rights and dignity of all people.
At the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, it is our mission to teach the lessons of the Holocaust, promote human dignity and inspire action. We use education — our greatest tool in the fight against hate — to inspire students of all ages to take responsibility for their actions and understand that what we say and do matters.
Our “Pyramid of Hate” lessons, created by the Anti-Defamation League, teach that in our daily lives, we have the power to stop racist jokes, scapegoating, stereotyping, bullying and other forms of discrimination that are at the base of the pyramid and can lead to violence. Through stories of local Holocaust survivors, we teach about resilience and the power to find dignity and courage in some of life’s hardest moments. Our stories of rescuers exemplify moral determination and the difference one person can make.
One story you can find in our museum is that of Paula Stern, a Holocaust survivor and dear friend who passed away recently at the age of 99. Paula was a prisoner of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. While in the camp, her job was to provide quality control in the ammunition plant. At great risk, she often discarded perfectly good bullets just to do her part to slow down the Nazi war machine. Other women in the ammunition factory hid gunpowder in their hems, which they passed to men in the camp who eventually blew up one of the crematoria.
Ada Van Dam, also a local Holocaust survivor, was a slave laborer in the laundry facility at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ada and other women would rip the clothes they were washing so that the slave laborers in the sewing room would have work to do and could stay in the warm laundry facility just a little longer, giving them a better chance at survival.
These stories and many more exemplify resistance and provide models for finding moral courage. It is not easy to report someone for cyberbullying or stop someone when they’re saying racist comments, but that’s what moral courage looks like today.
As we commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember the families and children, the musicians, scholars and poets. We mourn our loss and the loss to future generations as we continue to fight hate in all its forms.
Dee Simon is the Baral Family Chief Executive Officer at Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity.
Read more of the Jan. 26-Feb. 1, 2022 issue.