Op-Ed: ‘Never forget’ commands us to remember Holocaust horrors, not just the bravery of survivors

A woman holds out her forearm, tattooed by the Nazis with an identification number
Rose Schindler, in 2019, showed the identification number tattooed on her arm by Nazis when she arrived at Auschwitz in 1944. Schindler, at 89, was scheduled to make more than 100 appearances to answer questions as a Holocaust survivor.
( San Diego Union-Tribune)

The further the Holocaust recedes into history, the more we witness a dangerous trend toward substituting generic commemoration for the specifics of what occurred. A lighting of candles, a recitation of names and a promise to never forget are the staples of Days of Remembrance commemorations this week. What exactly we should never forget is not always explained, and this drift away from the details has taken its toll.

According to a survey conducted in 2020 by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, nearly two-thirds of Americans between 18 and 39 do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Among millennials and Gen Z, 1 in 10 believes it was the Jews who caused the Holocaust. One in 4 says the Holocaust is a myth, and 1 in 8 claims to have never heard of the Holocaust. The findings prompted Gideon Taylor, president of the Material Claims Conference, to call the survey “shocking and saddening” and to question why America hasn’t done a better job of Holocaust education.

The tendency to oversimplify the Holocaust was driven home for me recently when a community group called for advice on a film they wanted to produce about survivors living near us on Long Island. They submitted a promotional flier about their project, which read, “These men and women are heroes who embody all that is noble in the human spirit. Their will to survive is an inspiration to us all.”


Time out. Are we to assume that the 6 million Jews who did not survive lacked “human spirit” and were bereft of “the will to survive”? In 30 years of research, I’ve screened perhaps 200 hours of survivors’ video testimony, and I cannot recall any of them ever describing themselves as heroes. The Long Island filmmakers were not trying to revise or sanitize Holocaust history, they were simply unaware of how easy it is to propagate inaccuracies. When the complex, dehumanizing experiences of Holocaust victims are contorted into simplistic affirmations of the human spirit, we learn more about our own need for a happy ending than about the realities of the past.

It is an understandable temptation. After all, who wants to dwell on, or even be exposed to, unspeakable atrocities? Yet without dedicating at least some time to a candid and unedited examination of what happened, Holocaust commemorations risk perpetuating sanitized impressions that, in the extreme, might fuel denial: It couldn’t have been so bad. Look at the heroes who survived. They built the state of Israel, they started new family lines, they have a good life — how bad could it have been?

The need for an overhaul of Holocaust remembrance is not only a matter of getting history right but of preventing its repetition. There are substantial issues that deserve inclusion in commemorations, many of them relevant to recent events, such as the inflammatory power of demagogues to radicalize an entire population, the misuse of media as propaganda and the depths of depravity to which humans can fall when fueled by fear and anger — and most troubling, the steady increase in anti-Semitism.

In October, the American Jewish Committee released its “State of Anti-Semitism in America” report, which disclosed a disturbing lack of awareness among the general public about the severity of anti-Semitism in the United States. “To the traditional sources of anti-Semitism,” the AJC website comments, “we can now add a fourth: ignorance.”

On April 8, when the U.S. formally commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day, in addition to lighting candles consider including the testimony of a survivor in how you “never forget.” For example, dig into the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. The interviews reveal ordinary men and women, constrained by circumstances, and the unheroic things they did to stay alive.

“One night I was so hungry,” a woman, Hanna F., remembers, “I couldn’t sleep…. I stole that piece of bread [from my bunkmate]. I never admitted it. I was very sorry, because I was hungry and she was hungry … but there was no solution [because] you got diarrhea [anyway and] that was the end. So this wasn’t good and that wasn’t good: So what choice did we have?”


Or find out about Siggi Wilzig’s story. He survived Auschwitz and Mauthausen to become an American mogul. Wilzig suffered constant nightmares about his two years in Auschwitz: “As terrible as it sounds,” he once said , “I don’t think I could live without the nightmares. They give me an ultra-realistic sense of the difference between life and death, particularly as a Jew — and I would never give that up.”

When we can grasp that nightmares are as critical to our understanding of history as bravery and self-sacrifice, we will have made a significant step toward Holocaust remembrance.

The Holocaust is not ancient history. The same poisons of racism and anti-Semitism that led to the mass murder of millions are at work today, just below the surface of American life. In person, on tape, and through the printed word we can still hear survivors bear witness to what that poison produced 80 years ago. The danger of its recurrence in the future can be mitigated, but only if we enhance our understanding of what occurred in the past.

Joshua M. Greene taught Holocaust history at Hofstra University. His most recent book is “Unstoppable: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor and Penniless Immigrant to Wall Street Legend.”