Sixty-two years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the terrible events that have come to be known as the Holocaust loom larger than ever in the world’s collective imagination. Despite the passage of time and the disappearance of the surviving eyewitnesses, the Nazis’ mechanized attempt to exterminate the Jewish people stands out as an open wound on the conscience, a challenge to our sense of human honor and dignity.
It sometimes seems otherwise, but the evidence is all around us. “Hitler” remains the worst epithet imaginable, in almost any language. Incidents of injustice — real or imagined, monstrous or trivial — are routinely labeled “holocaust” in order to win sympathy for the victims from a world that understands precisely what “holocaust” means. The United Nations has created an international day of remembrance, coinciding with the liberation of Auschwitz in January, to recall the Nazis’ atrocities and warn against new ones.
Here and there, handfuls of madmen seek to deny the obvious truth, to blot out the evidence still crying out from the earth. But few take their ravings seriously; indeed, it often seems that they themselves don’t believe their own words, but speak their lies in pursuit of some sordid grudge.
For the rest of us, the challenge isn’t to establish what happened during those terrible years. We know the facts. Our challenge is to understand what it means. How should we now view our world, given the awful knowledge we have acquired of humanity’s capacity for evil? How are we to act?
Most important, what does it mean to vow that these things will never happen again? How will we know them when we see them?
Some see the Holocaust in mass killings by one group of another group — in Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda — because the Nazis engaged in mass murder of Jews. But the analogy is not perfect; the Nazis, unlike the Sudanese, Serbs or Hutus, were not using brutal means to quell a rebellion or insurgency. There was no Jewish insurgency. The Nazis simply wanted to rid the world of Jews, because they hated them with a methodical passion unmatched before or since.
Others see the Holocaust in attacks on the Jewish people, whatever their nature: in Palestinian terrorism, Iranian nuclear threats, Soviet efforts to suppress Jewish culture and religion, even the silent effacement of Jewish identity through individual choices of assimilation or interfaith marriage. But the Nazis were not out to change the Jews’ behavior or political structures. They did not offer alternative ways they might have preferred the Jews to live. They simply wanted them dead.
Still others see the Holocaust in any perceived overuse of force by a strong army against a weak population: America in Vietnam or Iraq, Israel in Gaza or Lebanon. To this line of thinking, little answer is needed, except for this: It was the American army that stopped the Nazis before they could complete their scheme of enslaving the world. It is the Israeli army that guarantees the survival of the Jewish home built as a retort to the Nazis and a haven for their victims. These cannot be the new Nazis, for they are the Nazis’ very antithesis.
What, then, is the Nazi threat that we commanded to guard against? Mass violence and murder? Abuse of power? Collective humiliation? Or is it, perhaps, each of these?
The debate will never end, alas, so long as groups and nations continue to fight for their pride and honor and to challenge that of their neighbors. For that reason, it is fitting that we continue to remember and teach the events of the Holocaust — not their symbolism or their modern analogues or even their moral lessons, but the specific deeds themselves, so that others may continue the debate.
This coming Sunday and Monday, April 15 and 16, Jewish communities around the world will gather to mark Yom Hashoah, the day set aside by the Israeli Knesset as Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date was chosen to commemorate the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on Passover Eve, April 19, 1943. On that day, a handful of young Jewish men and women stood up against the Nazi battalions, armed with little more than pistols, and showed the world the meaning of courage and defiance. Each time we honor them, we strike a light against the darkness and teach one more lesson of the Holocaust.