You Can’t ‘Never Forget’ the Holocaust if You Haven’t Learned About It

Like so many kids raised Jewish, I learned about the Holocaust again and again, year after year — in regular school, in religious school, and from my family.

After hearing the refrain “Never again!” nearly every time the slaughter of six million Jews was mentioned, I assumed this was a catastrophic tragedy everyone knew about and no one could ever possibly forget — and therefore, history would never repeat.

Now, here we are with a racist, anti-semitic president whose election and positions have emboldened white supremacists and Nazis to come out of the woodwork and commit hate crimes. According to the New York Times, in 2017, anti-semitic incidents surged by 57 percent. And today — Holocaust Remembrance Day — the paper is reporting on a study by Claims Conference: The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that shows American knowledge about the Holocaust is at an all-time low — particularly among millennials.

In the article, titled “Holocaust is Fading from Memory, Survey Finds,” Maggie Astor writes:

A survey released Thursday, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, found that many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened — and this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials, whom the survey defined as people ages 18 to 34.

Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.

One antidote to our national amnesia seems to be the capturing and sharing of the remaining 400,000 survivors’ stories.

Holocaust remembrance advocates and educators, who agree that no book, film or traditional exhibition can compare to the voice of a survivor, dread the day when none are left to tell their stories.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington collects comment cards from many visitors before they leave, and they underscore that “no educational experience that anyone has coming through here has as much of an impact as hearing from a survivor directly,” said Kristine Donly, interim director of the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the museum, who sat on the board that developed the survey.

And so, across the country and around the world, museums and memorials are looking for ways to tell the witnesses’ stories once the witnesses are gone.

Nothing communicates the reality of something so unimaginably horrible like seeing the faces and names, and hearing the narratives, of those subjected to it. I can attest to that; despite my lifelong immersion in Holocaust education — plus college courses in Holocaust literature, plays and films, and a visit to Dachau in my 20s — nothing made it as real for me as accidentally learning last year that my grandfather’s brother, Alberto DeBotton, was rescued on April 13th, 1945, on a train from Bergen-Belsen to Theresienstadt.

I never knew about this because of a legacy of estrangement in my family. I don’t know whether my grandfather and the rest of his family even knew about Alberto’s experience in a concentration camps, because of “bad blood” and silence between them. Last year, when I was researching my mother’s side of the family on Ancestry.com, the site surprised me with a “clue” about Alberto, which led me to articles and a book, A Train Near Magdeburg by Matthew Rozell, about the famous American rescue mission that apparently saved his life.

I’m doing some research, hoping to learn more about Alberto and the roughly 66,000 other Jews from Thessaloniki, or Salonika as my Sephardic ancestors called it, who were murdered. But the Nazis destroyed all the vital information on the Jews there, making research nearly impossible — and contributing to the dangerous global disease of Holocaust amnesia.

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