In July, I had the honor of traveling to Israel with some of Canada’s brightest journalists to attend a conference hosted by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and education center, that aimed to give people in media a better grasp on Yad Vashem itself, and of the Holocaust–and study thereof–in general. With International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaching next week, I wanted to revisit my time at Yad Vashem internally and share my thoughts on the subject six months later.
When I stepped off the plane in Tel Aviv, Israel in July of 2010, I was looking forward to Yad Vashem’s program on the Holocaust for Canadian journalists, but I went in without any specific expectations. I felt as though I had pretty solid–although surface–understanding of the Holocaust: I knew of the major players, the approximate chronology of it, and the stomach-churning death toll. But frankly, that was about it. It was only in Israel that I learned the most important truth of which to be aware: The Holocaust didn’t just spawn the deaths of six million Jews; it brought an end to the stories of six million people because they shared a common faith and lineage. Six million human lives perished as a result of the most brilliantly orchestrated and globally devastating genocides in the world’s history.
Yad Vashem aims to look past the over-exposed images of piled bodies oft associated with Holocaust research and frequently quoted statistics and put a human face on the the subject. It’s a lot easier to understand the impact of the Holocaust through absorbing the stories of victims and survivors alike through art, poetry, film and testimony than by reading numbers from a book or catching a glimpse of snapshot in time from an inconceivable scene of a Nazi death camp.
In my first few weeks back in North America, I found my mind constantly returning to the 90-year old Auschwitz survivor whose testimony I heard in Jerusalem: Frieda Klieger. Frieda was an ordinary woman with an extraordinary story. Having never met–to my knowledge–a Holocaust survivor before, it was a story that was completely foreign to me. Now, 62 years since the end of World War II and the Holocaust, of the startlingly small group who survived the Holocaust, even fewer remain. Within a generation, we will be forced to accept the fact that there will be no one left to recount their escape from Treblinka or recall the day that they were rescued from Auschwitz. There will be no one around to explain the odd looking tattoo on their arm to an inquisitive child.
Accompanying my profound appreciation for the opportunity I was blessed with my Yad Vashem, I was also left with an unimaginable plight as a journalist. As a human. How could I keep Frieda’s story alive? I never quite figured out my answer, but in the six months since my trip I’ve been able to view the world through a different lens than before. Before July, I knew some facts about the Holocaust; I knew it was a bad thing; and, I knew there were some disturbed individuals who tried to deny the scope or existence of it. Post-Israel, I was left to confront the reality that the biggest threat to the memory of the Jewish martyrs is not denial from a few kooks, but indifference from an entire generation.
As an elementary school student, there’s no way that the scope of the Holocaust can be understood. In high school, the subject is reduced to a few paragraphs in a history textbook. In university, few schools offer intensive courses in the study of the Holocaust, and the ones who do don’t, understandably, make it mandatory for students not wanting to pursue that area of study. Needless to say, this has rendered the world with countless students and yuppies whose knowledge of one of the darkest hours in world history is limited to knowing about this evil guy named Hitler who killed Jews in World War II before losing to the Allies. Great, onto the Cold War, now.
Many academics and even more journalists seem to force the view that the Holocaust and Hitler’s Final Solution are an example of genocide, not the pinnacle of the subject. I’ve even heard it argued that with each passing year, an increased focus on the Holocaust becomes less and less relevant. As the Holocaust moves further and further into the past, I’d say that the need to remember becomes more relevant, not less. Moreover, the level of indifference one must combat to effectively remember the six million gone-but-not-forgotten individuals increases.
I don’t purport to know the best way to educate the masses about the reality of the Holocaust, nor do I know how to curb indifference towards the Holocaust before it’s too late. What I do know is that when the survivors have passed on, Yad Vashem will remain atop Mount Herzl with its deep look into the past and its bright view of the future. They are the force that can keep the stories alive.