Legacy and Memory | Facing History & Ourselves
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or Holocaust Memorial, is a memorial in Berlin, Germany to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Legacy and Memory

Review some of the profound legacies of the Holocaust and World War II and consider how these histories continue to influence our lives today.


At a Glance

chapter copy


English — US


  • History


  • The Holocaust


About this Chapter

The Holocaust and World War II left profound legacies—in the shape of the immediate aftermath of the war and the decades that followed, in the lives of individuals and the course of nations, and in the new ideas, laws, policies, and institutions that were developed in response to the death and destruction. This chapter explores some of those legacies, and it also considers what it means not just to learn about this history but also to remember it and acknowledge how it influences our lives today.

  • What can individuals or nations do to repair, rebuild, and restore their societies after war, genocide, and mass violence?
  • How should we remember the Holocaust? 
  • How does the past influence us as individuals and as members of society? Does the past influence us differently depending on our individual identities? 
  • Why is it important to remember the past? What are the consequences of not remembering? 

This chapter is from the Legacy and Memory section of Holocaust and Human Behavior and includes:

  • 17 readings 
  • 1 visual essay
  • Connection Questions

Soon after Germany’s surrender in May 1945, which ended World War II in Europe, the Allies began efforts to seek justice, to hold the guilty accountable, and to establish an international rule of law, a process that was explored in Chapter 10. The trials at Nuremberg were just the first attempt to respond meaningfully to the war and the systematic murders that we now call the Holocaust. This process of reckoning, or coming to terms, with the history of the Holocaust is one that continues today among historians, survivors and their descendants, politicians, citizens, and students. As American author James Baldwin has said, in writing about America’s history of slavery:

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. 1

Baldwin suggests that we won’t really understand history or ourselves unless we consider how the past is “present” in our world. And the Holocaust—which historians describe as not merely a significant moment in history but a “collapse in human civilization” 2 and a “symbol of evil” 3 —exerts an especially powerful force. Author Eva Hoffman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, has observed, “Sixty years after the Holocaust took place, our reckoning with this defining event is far from over. Indeed, as this immense catastrophe recedes from us in time, our preoccupation with it seems only to increase.” 4

In addition to the Nuremberg trials, new institutions, laws, policies, and ideas were developed in response to the death and destruction of World War II and the Holocaust. Among these were the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Criminal Court, and the concept of genocide—a new term to describe a crime that before was nameless. But the legacy of the Holocaust consists of more than institutions, laws, and ideas; what happened then has continued to have a profound influence on the lives of individuals to this day. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, there is a difference between history and memory: “History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. . . . Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me.” 5 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.

The readings in this chapter span the period from 1945 to the twenty-first century, reflecting ways that legacy and memory are made evident in the lives of individuals, in institutions, in memorials, and on city streets. Teachers should select readings that best match their aims and objectives as well as the questions and interests of their students. 

  • 1James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Ebony, August 1965, 47.
  • 2“The President's Commission on the Holocaust: Guiding Principles,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed June 1, 2016.
  • 3Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), x.
  • 4Eva Hoffman, After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust (New York: Public Affairs, 2011), ix.
  • 5Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's Haggadah: Hebrew and English Text with New Essays and Commentary (New York: Continuum, 2006), 29.

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Inside this Chapter

Analysis & Reflection

Enhance your students’ understanding of our readings on the legacies of the Holocaust with these follow-up questions and prompts.

  1. In what ways did the events of World War II and the Holocaust shape institutions, laws, and attitudes in the years that followed? What has been accomplished? How have these institutions, laws, and attitudes failed? What challenges remain?
  2. Are there “lessons” that we can learn from the history of the Holocaust? What do the readings in this chapter suggest? What do you think? 

  3. Elie Wiesel has said, “[I]f anything can, it is memory that will save humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.” 1 Why does he say that memory will save humanity? What might happen if we don’t remember and confront a violent past? Why is it important to have both memory and hope as we try to solve the problems in our world?

  4. Ha Jin, a Chinese American poet, wrote this poem, titled “The Past.”

    I have supposed my past is part of myself.
    As my shadow appears whenever I’m in the sun
    the past cannot be thrown off and its weight
    must be borne, or I will become another man.

    But I saw someone wall his past into a garden
    whose produce is always in fashion.
    If you enter his property without permission
    he will welcome you with a watchdog or a gun.

    I saw someone set up his past as a harbor.
    Wherever it sails, his boat is safe—
    If a storm comes, he can always head for home.
    His voyage is the adventure of a kite.

    I saw someone drop his past like trash.
    He buried it and shed it altogether.
    He has shown me that without the past
    one can also move ahead and get somewhere.

    Like a shroud my past surrounds me
    but I will cut it and stitch it,
    to make good shoes with it,
    shoes that fit my feet. 2

    What lines and phrases from the poem echo ideas and events in this chapter?

    What does the poem suggest about the connection between history and identity? What do the readings in this chapter suggest about the connection between history and identity?

    What does the last stanza suggest about how Ha Jin sees the relationship between the past and the future?

  • 1Elie Wiesel, “Nobel Lecture: 'Hope, Despair and Memory,'” Nobelprize.org, accessed June 3, 2016.
  • 2Ha Jin, Facing Shadows (Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 1996), 63. Reproduced by permission of Hanging Loose Press.

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