With Holocaust Memorial Day coming up, there are some things that we as a society need to reflect upon.
It is fair to say that in the United States, most students can name the basic facts and figures of the Holocaust. Every student will recognize the number 6,000,000, the name Hitler and repeat the phrase “never forget.” However, we have forgotten to some extent. Maybe we haven’t forgotten these facts and figures — the history and chronology of the Holocaust — but we have forgotten the true implications of what it means when we say, “never forget.”
To “never forget” does not solely imply remembrance, but also prevention. To remember the Holocaust is to foster the understanding and progress that will inhibit such genocide from occurring again. Some may argue that teaching the Holocaust is sufficient in deterring future genocides, but this argument fails to recognize the naïveté and inadequacy of selecting one event to encompass the entirety of such a complex atrocity. I am not trying to belittle, reform or erase Holocaust education; I am simply calling for supplemental studies. This is already happening to some extent.
According to Eric Weitz, a distinguished professor of history and human rights at City College of New York, who participated in a panel discussion on genocide this past weekend at the University of Michigan, genocide is a “creative act.” Each genocide is unique and masterminded. Therefore, the Holocaust alone was not and is not determinant of subsequent genocides.
So why do we think it is? According to the book “The Human Rights Revolution,” at the end of the Second World War, “the shocking discovery of the Jewish genocide allegedly added a moral code to international politics.” The 1948 Genocide Convention was created in response, defining genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Kofi Annan, who served as the UN secretary-general explicitly linked the Holocaust to human rights, calling it the “driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The Holocaust’s magnitude caused worldwide revulsion and a call to action through human rights dialogue and conventions, setting the precedent for the way future genocides would be viewed. It is possible that the Holocaust’s role as the originator has raised the threshold for defining or labeling an event as genocide.
Primarily, the Holocaust is studied as a religious, or in some terms, racial genocide: Aryans persecuting Jews. Racism and division are key factors in the origins of genocide, but racism can take different forms. Political genocide is excluded from traditional Holocaust education, such as in the Cambodian genocide or the “desaparecidos” (disappeared) of Argentina. Holocaust education additionally fails to educate on intra-religious and class genocides as well.
The massive documentary evidence produced as a result of the Nuremberg trials of the Holocaust also assists in its facility as an educational resource. More than nine million children have visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since its dedication in 1993. The Holocaust Task Force also reports that 48 states and Washington D.C. have created social-studies standards which require the teaching of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is clearly central to genocide education. There are museums, memorials, literature, debates and lesson plans designed to teach it. But if you told a teacher to teach on Rwanda, what would they do?
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum recognizes they need to do more. Through its Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, the museum is striving to research, raise awareness, educate and build political will to combat all forms of genocide.
Other programs like this have arisen, such as the Washington Peace Center and the American University Genocide Teaching Project, which share the goal of ending crimes against humanity through education.
We need more programs like these. We must expand the scope of how the Holocaust is studied, setting subsequent atrocities into a broader context so that we can prevent groups from becoming the next victims of genocide. Holocaust education is crucial, but we must recognize it is not enough. We have failed to make all atrocities as publicly available, taught and condemned as the Holocaust.
It is time to progress into further critical dialogue on the nature of genocide. This Holocaust Memorial Day, let’s make sure that when we say “never forget,” we really mean and advocate “never again.”
Alayna Trilling is an LSA sophomore.