Today is the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is dedicated to honor the victims of the Nazi genocide and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.
Never before have we remembered victims of mass atrocities as we have today, particularly when it comes to the Holocaust. The Holocaust is taught as part of the regular school curriculum in the U.S., large parts of Europe, Israel and many other places around the world. We have international, national, and hybrid criminal courts and truth commissions to establish individual responsibility for these crimes and to create collective memory of what happened. We have days and weeks of remembrance – the International Holocaust Remembrance Day today and the U.S. Days of Remembrance (this year, April 27 to May 4). There are more than 250 museums and memorials world wide and all major American cities have a place dedicated to remember the Holocaust. The Holocaust is subject of 183 narrative films and 173 documentary films to date, many art exhibits, and is debated in schools and parliaments alike. Remembrance walks, community gatherings, and religious services focusing on the victims of the Holocaust are common. Genocide and genocide prevention is a mainstream public concern and source of grassroots engagement. A new book, discussed in yesterday’s New York Times consists of 1,250 pages of the word “Jew” 6 million times to represent the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust. The author’s goal was to show not only the extent of the killings, but also “how the Nazi’s viewed their victims: These are not individuals, these are not people, these are just a mass we have to exterminate.” There are lots of other examples of similar exhibits and attempts to represent the number of victims.
No question, remembering the victims has many faces. The question remains: how should and can we remember the victims of mass atrocities? Is it acceptable to just “illustrate” the number, however terrifying and shocking that number is? Or is it important that we remember that every victim has a name, a face and a story? Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, has a different approach to this issue. Its director said “We understand that human life, human beings, individuals are at the center of our research and education. This is the reason we are investing so much in trying to retrieve every single human being, his name, and details about his life.” The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin describes 15 family fates in heart wrenching detail before, during, and after the persecution by the Nazis. Similarly, the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Survivor and Victims Resource Center focuses on preserving the individual experiences of Holocaust survivors and victims. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel, has a “Shoah Victims Names Recovery Project” and a Book of Names can be viewed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
While we can’t grieve for each individual life lost, each story of suffering, and the struggles of the survivors of genocide and other mass atrocities, it is important that we remind ourselves that we are talking about people, not numbers. These are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, husbands, wives, friends. These are people who had lives full of love, hope, happy times as well as anxiety, sad days, and horrifying destinies. It is particularly important for us, who study these topics, to take a step back every once in a while and think about the human beings behind the numbers. As Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel once said: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” To think about the victims only in numerical terms might be almost as bad.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.