Rising Antisemitism and Fading Memories of the Holocaust

Can history help promote a safe and just world today?

January 27, 2019, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day marks 74 years since Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi killing center, was liberated by Allied forces. On this anniversary, the world commemorates the mass murder of six million European Jews—as well as millions of Roma, homosexuals, disabled persons, and political dissidents—at the hands of Nazi Germany.

Can official commemorations such as this help us to confront hate in the world today?

Almost three-quarters of a century has passed since the near decimation of Europe’s Jewish community. The Holocaust demonstrated to the world the abject evil that can follow the exploitation of deep-seeded hatred. Yet in recent years, two troubling, and possibly related, trends have emerged: knowledge and memory of the Holocaust is receding, as antisemitic and xenophobic violence is on the rise. Despite the international community’s post-war commitment to building institutions that combat antisemitism and promote peace and tolerance, recent studies suggest that the calls and commitment to “never forget” the horrors of the Holocaust may be fading.

The following teaching ideas prompt students to assess their own knowledge about the Holocaust and antisemitism, analyze recent trends about each revealed by polling, and consider how understanding history can guide our efforts to bring about a more just world today.

  1. How Do We Learn about the Holocaust?

    Teachers can begin examining this current event topic by asking students to reflect on their awareness of the Holocaust and antisemitism. Lead a brief discussion based on these questions:

    How much have you learned about the Holocaust and/or antisemitism? Where has your information come from? What questions do you have?

    If students are mostly unfamiliar with the Holocaust, share these basic facts:

    • 6 million European Jews were murdered at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust, from 1941–1945. Before the Holocaust, there were approximately 9 million Jews living in Europe (based on 1939 figures).
    • Antisemitism1 is hatred of or hostility toward Jews, usually based on the false belief that Jews are members of a distinct and inferior “race.”
    • Antisemitism was the key foundation of Nazi ideology. Hitler used this historic hatred of Jews to enact discriminatory legislation, encourage violence, force expulsion, and finally, deport Jews to death camps as the Final Solution to making Europe “Judenrein” (free of Jews).
  2. Examine Trends Today

    Students will examine two recent reports about the fading memory of the Holocaust and the resurgence of antisemitic attitudes in Europe in recent years. But first, have them consider why it might be important to remember the Holocaust. Ask students to offer some initial thoughts about the following question:

    Do you think it matters whether, 74 years later, the world still knows about and remembers the Holocaust? What do you think might be some consequences if people don’t know anything about it?

    Next, share one or both of the following resources with students:

    • Video: CNN Poll Reveals Anti-Semitism Is Alive and Well in Europe (1:57): This CNN video from the fall of 2018 shares the results of an online poll about European antisemitism with participants from seven countries: Austria (Adolf Hitler’s birth country), France, Germany (where the Nazi regime came to power in the 1930s), Hungary, Poland (the location of the majority of concentration camps), Sweden, and Great Britain.
    • Reading: Anti-Semitism Pervades European Life, Says EU Report: This BBC News article (with accompanying infographics) from December 2018 reports on the results from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights’s (EUFRA) second report collecting data from people who identified as Jewish in 12 EU states: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. These European Jews reported a perception that antisemitism is a “serious problem.” (Note: EUFRA’s Second Survey on Discrimination and Hate Crime against Jews in the EU, referenced in the BBC article, is available for download. While lengthy, pages 11–13 provide digestible key-findings for classroom use.)

    Use these questions to guide your discussion of the resources:

    • 1 in 20 Europeans surveyed by CNN acknowledged they have never heard of the Holocaust. The percentages are even higher for 18–24 year olds. What factors do you think account for this lack of knowledge about the Holocaust?
    • Why does the CNN report combine polling results about both knowledge of the Holocaust and antisemitism in Europe today? What is the report suggesting about the connection between the two?
    • Review the definition of antisemitism provided in Activity 1. What are examples of specific antisemitic acts and antisemitic attitudes cited by the surveys? What might be some connections between acts and attitudes?
    • According to the polls, where are antisemitic comments most visible? Why do you think digital spaces are seemingly hospitable to discriminatory and/or antisemitic comments?
  3. Reflect

    Journal Reflection: Ask students to consider the following observation by Jonathan Sacks, a British rabbi and philosopher, and then respond in their journals to the questions below.

    History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. . . . Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Survivors, witnesses, the descendants of those who lived this history, and all those who learn about it today face the question of how to remember the past and how that memory might shape our understanding of ourselves and our present world.2

    Over 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, the generation of survivors and witnesses is aging and passing away. Who today is responsible for preserving the memory of the Holocaust? Why is so important to preserve that memory? How can people today learn the history of the Holocaust in a way that makes it more than mere “information”? What might it look like to make this history part of our own identities as individuals and communities?

Extensions

To delve more deeply into the 74th anniversary commemorating the Holocaust and to use creative resources inspired by the Holocaust, consult our unit Teaching Schindler’s List. To explore contemporary manifestations of European antisemitism and to find teaching ideas to guide your students, refer to our lesson Responding to Hate in Our Communities Today from this same unit.

To highlight specific issues and initiatives addressing antisemitism in European culture, refer to our lessons Recognising Antisemitism in British Football and Contemporary Antisemitism and Youth.

Citations

  • 1 : The word Semitic does not actually refer to a group of people. It is not a “race” but rather a linguistic term that refers to a group of languages traditionally spoken in the Middle East and parts of Africa, including Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia, as well as Hebrew and Arabic. Because there is no such thing as a Semitic race, Facing History and Ourselves uses the alternate spelling antisemitism instead of the common anti-Semitism.
  • 2 : Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah: Hebrew and English Text with New Essays and Commentary (New York: Continuum, 2006), 29.

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