Erasing the Jew from Holocaust Memory

Tags: Holocaust, Antisemitism, Elana Heideman

By Dr. Elana Yael Heideman

On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. On that day, Soviet troops entered the very gates that had confined the freedoms of so many. They witnessed the physical condition of surviving inmates and the horrific living space in which the prisoners were forced to sleep, eat, and attempt to retain a semblance of their humanity in the shadow of death, living through a torturous reality unbeknownst to mankind before or since.

The liberators of what became known as the most prominent mechanism of Nazi evil discovered only scattered remnants of evidence left behind: the blown up remains of gas chambers and crematorium, mounds of clothing and precious items that once belonged to Jews who had long since perished. They saw before their eyes the living dead.

The Holocaust, however, did not end the day Auschwitz was liberated. By then, most of its primary victims—the Jews of Europe—had been gassed, shot or forced onto death marches. The methodical persecution, dehumanization, and murder of the sole population targeted for extermination by the Nazis continued for another three months.

As years pass, the memory of this historical event has begun to fade, diminished under the weight of Holocaust denial, distortions, displacement of blame, illegitimate comparisons, Holocaust “fatigue,” and, most recently, the return of traditional anti-Jewish tropes that either discard the significance of the Holocaust or call for a renewal of its goals. As a result, countless organizations have embarked on educational efforts and campaigns to attempt to reframe the Holocaust as a collective human experience with universal implications that, unfortunately, cast aside the identity and memory of the Jews for whom the machine of murder was created.

AP Photo/Dan Balilty

A major milestone toward the international affirmation of Holocaust memory was achieved in 2005 when, after years of lobbying, January 27th was chosen as the date to recognize and remember the victims that suffered under the hands of the Nazis. For the Jews who witnessed the miracle of their liberation, as Marta Wise, a 10-year-old Slovakian Jew when she arrived at Birkenau in November 1944, shared, “To me, as far as I am concerned, the 27th of January is my second birthday . . . because that’s when we got another lease at life.”

The date of the liberation of Auschwitz held a particular universal significance that resounded with the United Nations—the body that set the day of international memory into place: along with the 1.1 million Jews processed for extinction, more than 100,000 prisoners of war, Poles, Gypsies, people with disabilities, and other minorities also died in Auschwitz from starvation, disease, and forced labor.

More than any other locale, Auschwitz has come to represent the horrors of the Holocaust, in which more than 6 million Jews were systematically murdered by Nazi Germany and its allies. Its name has become synonymous with the Nazi genocide as it reflected the meticulous German effort to exterminate Europe’s Jews—a plan dubbed the “Final Solution.” The camps were the most notorious in a system that Germany built and operated in occupied Poland, home to Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish population and at the heart of a railway network that allowed the Nazis to easily transport Jews there from elsewhere in Europe. Thus, Auschwitz-Birkenau remains a symbol of the systematic, legal campaign as well as the social and political mechanisms that made the extermination of Jews possible. Many roads led to the creation and success of this one "camp," whose methods of murder had been perfected by each phase of the Holocaust that preceded it: from the ghettos, to the killing pits, to the extermination centers where Jews, and only Jews, were processed through the machine of death. But is Auschwitz-Birkenau more important for us to remember than Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek? And what is to be told of Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald, Mathausen?

International Holocaust Remembrance Day was an initiative of the State of Israel under the leadership of then-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel, Silvan Shalom, as the head of the delegation of Israel to the United Nations. The vision for this day was twofold: to protect the memory and to remember those who were massacred during the Holocaust. The second goal was to demonstrate a global commitment to educate future generations of the horrors of the Holocaust in cooperation with international bodies who understood the uniqueness of this historical event.

As Shalom proclaimed to the United Nations on that day, "This year and every year, we must reassert our commitment to human rights…We must also go beyond remembrance, and make sure that new generations know this history. We must apply the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s world. And we must do our utmost so that all peoples may enjoy the protection and rights for which the United Nations stands."

By extracting it from the Israeli/Jewish Yom HaShoah, historically associated with Jewish heroism, as it marked the onset of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the international day would assist the global population to consider its significance for all humanity. An unfortunate result, however, is that the Holocaust is being internationalized, universalized, at the detriment of its Jewish victims, the rights to Jewish memory, and the dignity of the Jewish world that lives on today.

One might assume that International Holocaust Remembrance Day would be a day to teach the uniqueness of the Holocaust, to explore and inspire discussions of ways to prevent the same hate from rising again. But that assumption would be wrong. The two most prominent threats to the integrity of Holocaust memory are becoming increasingly evident. First, the Jewish identity of the victims has been diminished under the generalized reference to “11 million victims,” expanded to include the various groups deemed inferior by the Nazis. In a collective and universalized memory, the experience of suffering under conditions of war, forced labor, and tyranny cannot and should not be equated with the unique circumstances of momentary survival and the deterioration of the human condition to which Jews—and particularly Jews—were forced to endure.

Second, the rights of memory of the experience are being shifted away from the Jews. Terminology is being altered to the point where many are finding it necessary to say “the Jewish Holocaust”, as if there was any other kind. Ceremonies are increasingly focused on simplified reflections of an experience that was, in truth, very specific to Jews. Instead of international remembrance, it would seem that we are witnessing international de-Judaization of Holocaust memory.

More and more, the message of International Holocaust Remembrance Day is being altered to meet the political and social trends of the day. It is being altered by people who did not witness the selections of Jews, did not smell the stench of burning bodies, and did not witness the ash falling from the sky. And while International Holocaust Remembrance Day was intended to resist the rising trends of Holocaust denial, a disconnect from the Jewish identity of the Holocaust makes it even easier to continue to alter truth that the witnesses have sought so hard to preserve. As Elie Wiesel once said about those who perished: “to forget them would be akin to killing them twice.” So, too, is forgetting the reason they were targeted for the endless litany of tortures imposed by the Nazis: for the sole reason of being born as a Jew.

For this reason, each year, this international "anniversary" of collective memory arrives and Jews worldwide feel conflicted. How can we ensure the memory of our people, our suffering is perpetuated without allowing the uniqueness of the Jewish experience under the Nazis to be minimized, diminished, eroded by the universality of this commemorate day? Moreover, for those who honor Yom HaShoah as the Jewish day of remembrance for our brethren so brutally beaten, starved, shot, and gassed, how do we balance between two days of memory?

One crucial step is making sure that The Holocaust is internationally remembered and its lessons learned by all: that it is not “a holocaust” but rather “The Holocaust”: the targeted, methodical attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, borne from a long history of Jewish hatred that so deeply rooted in the psyche of much of humanity who turn a blind eye to the ongoing persecution, dehumanization and murder of Jews. There have, sadly, been other genocides in before and since, targeting other nations for elimination. But none have been as scientifically executed and cold blooded, the result of socially-accepted, clear-headed rationales that culminated in a plan for the deliberate, widespread killing within an otherwise "civilized" society.

Over a decade since its inception, this day of memory is increasingly marked on social media through hashtag campaigns, the sharing of stories, memories, videos, and photos of family members long since perished. In Israel, the day is marked by presentations by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs on the main trends and incidents of Antisemitism over the previous year, thereby emphasizing the correlation between the persecutions of the past with those of the present day around the globe. The videos and graphics that are circulating increase the potential for Holocaust remembrance of the uniquely Jewish experience to be viral and central to the significance of marking this day of the liberation of Auschwitz. But is this enough?

In doing so, we all must ask ourselves: the voices of the survivors, what do they tell us that we are forgetting in our “mainstream commemoration efforts?” They speak of unimaginable horrors, of screams, anguish, fear, and death that transformed the human condition for Jews in particular. They teach us of songs in the darkness, of the faith that persevered even when in doubt, and of a belief in our own humanity, our own rights, and our dream of eventually living free as Jews. They share the endless pursuit of life in spite of it all, and of the capability for good and evil that rests within each one of us just as they remind us of the dangers of hate and silence of which we are all also capable. They cry out and say, “how did you, the people of the world, allow this to happen?” and they beg not to be forgotten in the scope of an internationalized, universalized day of memory for all the unfortunate victims of genocide, war, persecution.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, while it is appropriate to honor all the victims of Nazism, it is incumbent upon us not to allow the Jewish story, humanity, memory to be cast aside just as we cannot allow it to be misappropriated or abused for any one political aim.

When this day of remembrance has been concluded, we must always remember that our work has also not reached its end. For if Holocaust Memorial Day is a day to reaffirm our commitment to human rights, it must also be a day to reaffirm Jewish rights and the right to Jewish memory of the unique Jewish suffering imposed by the Nazis, their collaborators, and the silent world that allowed the Holocaust to occur.


Explore the connection between Holocaust, Hope and Israel in our effort to remember and make meaning out of our history as a people.

About the Author

Dr.  Elana Yael Heideman
Dr. Elana Yael Heideman, Executive Director of The Israel Forever Foundation, is a dynamic and passionate educator who works creatively and collaboratively in developing content and programming to deepen and activate the personal connection to Israel for Diaspora Jews. Elana’s extensive experience in public speaking, educational consulting and analytic research and writing has served to advance her vision of Israel-inspired Jewish identity that incorporates the relevance of the Holocaust, Antisemitism and Zionism to contemporary issues faced throughout the Jewish world in a continuous effort to facilitate dialogue and build bridges between the past, present and future.

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Tags: Holocaust, Antisemitism, Elana Heideman