The death of Elie Wiesel this week brought the world a step closer to the possibility of fogetting the Holocaust. We live in a time so many years removed from the actual event that it no longer is part of our consciousness and is at risk of slipping from our subconscious. Even I wasn’t alive during WW2, let alone the 3(?!) generations after me. The Holocaust was something we studied in our history classes, but until recently there were more survivors and stories, at least through media interviews, of those who survived it. As that group dwindles, we face the danger of forgetting how real anti-Semitism was, may be, and may become.
When I have shared personal stories of having been the victim of anti-Semitism, sometimes especially with those of younger generations, they find it hard to believe. Yes, someone did feel my head for horns when I was a child. When our own personal experiences do not include such atrocities, we rely on the narratives of others which typically move us more deeply than do media reports, and more viscerally than through just printed sources such as books and news articles.
Last fall, Chicago station WGN-TV used a stock image of the Nazi yellow star — a badge in the shape of the Star of David imprinted with the word “Jude” that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust — as the anchor’s over-the-shoulder graphic in a story about Yom Kippur. Of course there were profuse apologies. Apparently this happened as the result of a young intern who picked the artwork and had no knowledge of its historical significance. (Don’t get me started. . . ) So important, l’dor va’dor, what one generation imparts to the next.
Often when we live through times of social change that we thought really changed society, e.g. the women’s rights movement of the late 60s, we become complacent thinking the injustice has been righted. In fact, history has shown us and when you live as long as I have (so far) our life experiences show us, that history does repeat itself and wrongs once righted often do become societal problems again.
The challenge is on us: to learn from society’s mistakes (history) and through our own mistakes (complacency) to deliberately remind ourselves to remember and to act. As the survivors of the Holocaust leave us, we have the responsibility to keep their memories alive. It is on us to be knowledgeable of the weaknesses at that time that led to such horror and to raise awareness in ourselves and in others when we see parallels. If we begin to think there is no problem we should be all the more vigilant: when my female associate at the law firm in the 90s said the guys get all the big cases I was shocked thinking the women’s equality problem had been fixed years ago. So it had to some extent, but as history shows, it reappeared thirty years later, not all at once but through gradual erosion by small snips – sexist jokes, slanted media coverage, back office unseen tactics – until momentum in the wrong direction gained hold mysteriously, quietly. That is the sneaky path that we can stumble down unless we remind ourselves of the lessons of history.
When some who may not have experienced anti-Semitism feel there is no such problem, we can remind them how seemingly small comments or events insidiously become institutionalized bigotry. And we are seeing those signs even today. The cycles of history return unless they can be broken by our attentiveness, by our words and actions fueled by our Creator’s love of neighbor.
May Elie Wiesel, and those who walked that path with him, never be forgotten.