Holocaust Memorial Day 2018 – Why study the Holocaust?

Why study the Holocaust? The key is not in answering, but to keep asking the question.

“I think it’s quite clear; the Holocaust has become a code concept for human behavior. So in that sense it is a constant warning.” Yehuda Bauer

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For Holocaust Memorial Day 2018, we go back in time to the origins of this site in 1993, with answers from Yehuda Bauer, Holocaust researcher and professor at Hebrew University during this interview, and Uri Aloni of Lochmei Hagetaot, the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum.

Thenand Now

Marching Out to Work

“Once the columns were formed, there was a long wait. Thousands of women taking time going out, five by five, counted as they pass. Passing through the gate made us tighten.”

Auschwitz, Then and Now with art by four artist/survivors of Auschwitz.

Many students who come here ask me that, and while I don’t have the answer, the question opens up many ways to understand why the Holocaust happened, how unique it was, and what it has in common with the way we live today.

Consider how often you read social media comments referencing the Holocaust and Hitler; to this day, the story the word “Holocaust” tells is changing, adapting in ways that are good and bad.


Why study the Holocaust?

Yehuda Bauer

Yehuda Bauer - why study the Holocaust?
Yehuda Bauer, Holocaust researcher interviewed at Hebrew University in 1993.

Do you find any way of being able to raise the consciousness of people that it just wasn’t like for instance, as people are looking at Bosnia today and the frustration of wanting to do something even though that’s a smaller level of what we are talking about…

What is the possibilities of making the bystanders aware or is there?

B: Well there are two questions there. It’s very easy to show people who want to study the subject how important the bystanders are.

And we have a great deal of information about them and we have a pretty exact knowledge of what they did and didn’t do and why they did and why they didn’t, so that is something that one can show and prove and so on and it’s comes across quite clearly.

The other thing of course is to do the actual research and there you have to differentiate between the different countries and the different types of populations.

The behavior was by no means uniform, on the contrary, it is very different.

  • Two thirds of the Jews of France survived, so obviously it had something to do with the attitudes of a large number of French people.
  • Sixty percent of the Jews of Belgium survived,
  • eighty percent of the Jews of Italy survived.
  • In the inner let’s say region of Bulgaria, not the areas that were conquered by the Bulgarian army outside of Bulgaria, but within Bulgaria, all the Jews survived.

Why? Why did it not happen elsewhere?

Now that is not very difficult to explain. And it is very important if you are looking for the human element, then how do you explain that people behaved differently in the Ukraine than in Poland, then France?

And how high do you value those few who did help in the Ukraine versus a general mood in France that made it much much easier for an ordinary Frenchman to say well my neighbor is doing this so that’s okay, I’ll do it too.

And how come there are these differences and Bulgaria isn’t in Western Europe, so it’s not a question of region maybe it’s not a question of democracy, Bulgaria was never democratic and so on, it was for a very short time, France was, yet the behavior seems to be similar in some ways.

And the churches, again a tremendous variety of attitudes and behavior, so it’s not very difficult to point it out, it’s much more difficult to explain on the level of the individual the behavior because you have either from all ranks of life and from all kinds of different backgrounds who helped, and you have people from the same background who didn’t.

And it is very difficult to find some sort of unifying explanation.

Holocaust art by Geoffrey Laurence - Those the River keeps

I: I don’t think we’ll every be able to explain it, the relevance to current events.

B: There is no relevance to current events. There is no relevance.

The relevance is to itself. Because in each historical event that you take, you don’t actually use what actually happened, you use it in order to show something that is happening now.

So there is no relevance and there is every relevance.

You mentioned Bosnia, the differences between the Holocaust and the Bosnian situation are too obvious to dwell upon, they are huge.

But of course you can use the Holocaust example if you want to show how the Bosnian situation could develop _ it won’t _ but how it could develop into something like the Holocaust and then draw your conclusions that human nature is shown to be capable of horrible things in both the Holocaust and Bosnia, if you arrive at that you arrive at no conclusion at all just purely rubbish. Because it’s too obvious.

I: You’re using history as your explanation.

B: You can do it but it won’t mean much. On the other hand if you take each situation separately and then you say, look there are certain things that are parallel, certain things that are not, now why are things parallel and why are things not parallel, then you go into something much deeper, then you make some sensible comments. How situations of genocide develop, the Bosnian situation is genocide too of a different type, how people arrive at such, how they land in such situations and to that we still lack answers, we don’t really know so far, there are efforts to explain this but so far not terribly convincing.

I: This is my first time visiting Israel, the notion of being surrounded as you are know, of the military preparedness, obviously someone from my country where we don’t need to be prepared against our neighbors, but when you are saying that this whole issue of can this happen again. How can or can knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust prevent that from happening?

B: It can contribute to it, in fact it has. I mean when George Bush called Saddam Hussein Hitler sitting in Baghdad and there was a danger of the Iraqis using gas and all the images came back, not only among Jews but among Americans, and Germans, and others.

Now what they did about it is another matter but there is an image there which has become embedded in Northern, Western whatever you like to call it culture.

I think it’s quite clear; the Holocaust has become a code concept for human behavior.

So in that sense it is a constant warning. And now when Clinton discusses Bosnia, there is absolutely no doubt that he has the Holocaust on his mind, what he does is another matter, good, bad, or indifferent, but the image is there, the warning is there.

And the same applies to the Armenian-Azari conflict in the former Soviet Union and the same applies to other places.

For instance, in black Africa, the conflict between the Tutu and the Tutsi and the Rwanda and the Burundi of which very little is being written, the violent terrible conflict between two ethnic entities threatening each other with total physical annihilation and there the Belgiums were the nearest to them, they used to rule it, it used to be Belgian colonial territories,

Belgium and French, they certainly employ in their own reaction the imagery of the Holocaust. And try to see what can be done to prevent it. So there is some outside chance that this could serve as a kind of warning.

I: Obviously I’m not racially linked to this history but it’s one of my own questions, why are so many people outside of the context interested?

B: It’s become a code in Western civilization, because of the position of the Jews in Western civilization, not only because of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, also because the Jews are Jews.

Western civilization is based on Greeks and Jews; now the Greeks have gone, the Greeks are there but not the Greeks you know, and the Jews are the same.

So it is very important for Western civilization what happens to the Jews, positively or negatively. And when, 1900 years after the coming of the Messiah, his people are murdered by baptized Gentiles that’s a problem for Christianity.

Just think of it, Jesus came to save the world, he was a Jew and 1900 years later people who were raised in his religion, or what people interpret his religion to be, baptized Gentiles murder his people.

So there is a tremendous credibility crisis for Christianity, there is another credibility crisis for Judaism too, because where was God at Auschwitz?

The usual question, but for both these monotheistic religions there are tremendous crises, out of this event, so the importance of the Jew in Western civilization is another reason why this has become a code, a code concept.

Why study the Holocaust?

Why study the Holocaust?
Uri Aloni, teacher at Lochmei Hagetaot – Ghetto Fighter’s Museum

Interview with Uri Aloni

Teacher, Lochmei Hagetaot – The Ghetto Fighter’s Museum

How do you introduce students to the Holocaust?

A: You see, in general, if you ask about the goal, and I can only give you my personal opinion of course, I cannot talk in the names of all my colleagues, we are a team of nine at the Study Center.

I would say the goal is first of all to give knowledge. So one goal is to give the students knowledge about what happened, historical facts and human facts. This is done by films, by footage and by films, by lecturers, and by workshops, and by eyewitnesses.

I would say the regular seminar lasts three days and in those three days, every day we have an eyewitness who tells his story and we try very much to have different personal stories, maybe one who was a child, one who survived the camps, and one who fought in that other way in the ghettoes or with the partisans or with an underground movement, we have somebody who tells from Holland and one who was in the Danish underground. You see, to try to make it have different stories and different topics.

So one is knowledge and the other one is to give them, in the same way but mainly through the eyewitnesses and the help of workshops, a better understanding of the victims, the perpetrators, and what really happened.

Because knowledge is not enough; especially, especially historical facts and so on, what is important is to give them a better understanding.

Because you see everywhere in the world people will ask themselves,

“How could human beings do that to other human beings? ”

That means, who were, what are the characteristics of the perpetrators and the killers? On the other hand, how could Jews go to their deaths without any resistance?

So these are the two main topics we want to try to give them a better understanding of what happened.

The third goal is to show them the uniqueness of the Holocaust, compared to other mass killings, to other kinds of genocide, because first of all the importance of that subject lies in the fact that a third of the Jewish people were killed, no other people has ever suffered so many losses, secondly there is a part of our Jewish history, and third, that we have to learn I want to call it to learn a lesson, but we have to learn consequences from what has happened, personal consequences towards our behavior with other minorities.

If it is in Israel and we have other minorities, if it is abroad, where you should at least take a stand if other minorities are being persecuted.

So if you want to call if the lessons of the Holocaust, I call it consequences because you never can…we all think that the Holocaust was such a huge, immense, un-understandable, phenomenon that you cannot that it would be say too simple, too primitive to say to learn from it, but there are things you should think about and say. I will try to teach mainly younger people that there are some consequences that have to be taken from what has happened.

And that is on one hand the Jewish meaning of the Holocaust and on the other hand, the universal meaning of the Holocaust.

And we, I think, we should really care that the Holocaust for our youngsters in Israel shouldn’t only be a Jewish problem. Only a Jewish subject, because it is much more.


And this is not so simple. So, it’s not simple at all first of all to teach young Israelis, to tell them and to try and make them understand that Jews did not defend themselves, because it is so self understood here that we defend ourselves, we have to be strong, and we have to care about ourselves, no one is going to care about us.

That the world has shown during the Holocaust, that the world shows today what is going on in the ex-Yugoslavia, so if you don’t care about yourself, no one will help you, the world will help you only if it has a direct interest in what is happening.

So that’s what happened in Kuwait, no one would have cared about that Kuwait down there and Saddam Hussein if it wasn’t for the oil, if it weren’t the oil. So if the big powers acknowledged only one big power, let’s say European power, if they don’t have a direct interest in what is happening, no one is coming to your help.

So the young people think, how could this happen? The Jews went, as it was said, and we, I personally try very much not to use that term about “sheep going to the slaughter”.

Because I think we are not allowed _ we who have not suffered _ we have not gone through the Holocaust, we have not experienced that terrible thing, we are not allowed to judge or to call them names and talking about , they went like “sheep to the slaughter” is calling them names, is dishonoring the victims.

So it is very important really to teach our youngsters there are circumstances, especially when they are done by a cruel, very well planned, scheme like the Nazi regime. Which was very conscious of all they were doing.

There was a development of the Nazi policy towards the Jews, genocide only came up in 1941, then genocide was decided in ’41, in ’39 and ’40 it was only the ghettoes as an interim solution because they didn’t know what to do with so many Jews they got with their government in Poland.

But the German Jews, they maybe had the illusion that they would emigrate sooner or later, but the genocide was decided quite late only in ’41, it started with the so-called Einsatzgruppen in the occupied Soviet areas.

So I think that even in three days, we are quite successful, I cannot say that we solve all the problems because there might be mainly students of lower intelligence or education that think only black or white and they think no, I can’t accept that they didn’t do anything. I understand that they didn’t have arms and they couldn’t fight, but at least they should do something and not walk into the gas chambers without any resistance at all.

And we tried to make them understand how things happened, because I always when I talk to those younger people, I give the example of my own parents.

I don’t know how they perished but I know exactly the story how my father had still the illusion that this cannot happen and how there is a very good book by an eyewitness, an Israeli eyewitness, which has been translated into English and the name is “Hope is the Last to Die.”

It means that a human being always hopes that it will not happen to him. It will not happen to him, it will not happen at all, it will only happen then, not to us, to our ghetto and when it happens to the ghetto, it will happen only to the old ones and the sick ones and the small children and it will not happen to me because I am young and strong, I can work. And when it comes to you then you think maybe it won’t happen to me, they’ll take me to Auschwitz, but at the selection I will be selected to those who go to work and not to those who go to the gas chambers.

So people always hope. And if they are told a very well planned lie by the Germans, about the camps about the recolonization the resettlement of the Jews in the huge occupied areas of the Ukraine and so on. They just wanted to believe it.

They heard in the ghettoes, especially in the Warsaw ghetto, they heard from the young people that Treblinka means death. But they did not want to believe it, it is not they did not believe it, they did not want to believe it.

So all these things really have to be made clear to the students and I we have the feeling we never made any research about how our students, really, how they keep what they have learned here for years.

We only have the sum up, you know the summary at the end of a seminar and everyone talks up. And I must say the most responses we get are that they learned a lot. and now they understand much better.

They don’t say that all of them understand what happened, but they understand much better how things could have happened as they did. So I think that in quite a, I think we quite well achieved the goals we have set for ourselves, giving those seminars and teaching those youngsters.

I:  What do you think of Bill Clinton calling Bosnia a Holocaust, it’s not the same thing that this sort of what we call “normalization” which makes more of a myth.

How do you as a teacher, not necessarily address that, but what are your feelings about that?

A: See, first of all not always do we have time to discuss that topic, that subject, with our students. But when it comes up, I personally try very hard to show to show the students that using the Holocaust and using events of the Holocaust in relevance to up to date or to other events, wherever they happen, is completely wrong because nothing can be compared to the Holocaust

But there is one very important thing I’d like to try to discuss with my students, and that is the manipulation of the Holocaust by politicians.

Of course I talk to them that many times it happens that demonstrators call the police Nazis and Gestapo and so on, and maybe they are just a little bit out of their minds, but manipulation of the Holocaust.

For instance I do not like when any VIP from abroad arrives on an official visit to Israel, immediately on the first day, the latest is on the second day, they grab him and bring him into Yad Vashem.

Because in my eyes _ this is my personal opinion _ that this is some kind of manipulation of the Holocaust.

They should let people ask for seeing Yad Vashem, and not first of all bring them there, look what they have done to us, and now we can talk about our problems, our daily problems, our up to date problems and so on, that means.

The Holocaust is a very important part of our history , no doubt that the state of Israel was founded at that time because of the Holocaust and its consequences. I want to emphasize “at that time” because I believe that there are people who say that the Jewish people have to thank Hitler for that they have a state today, because otherwise they would have never got it.

We would have got it maybe 50 years later, because Zionism existed, Aliyah existed, and it would have taken more time until the world would have agreed that a Jewish state should be erected here. Even the partitions between us and the Palestinians, which is the core of the whole problem we have with them, they did not accept the United Nations resolution in ’47.

So I would say dragging a very important guest, dragging them to Yad Vashem, I do not personally like it.

For me it’s some kind of manipulation, and then on the other hand I would say there is another danger in teaching the Holocaust and that is that the consequence of youngsters, mainly young people, could be all the world the entire world is against us, so we have to be strong, we have to be strong, we have no one to allow to endanger in any way the existence of Israel and our response should always be very powerful and have a strong army.

Whenever it starts to respond in a very aggressive way and I must say mainly the right wing parties in my eyes they play too much with frightening the people, all the world is against us, everyone is against us, so the consequence is we have to be strong, we need a big country so the borders have to be as big as possible, as far as possible from the mainland from the main concentration of the population and so on.

But I personally think we cannot live with this, and they use not even once the Holocaust to say listen, that happened to us and if we are not strong enough it could happen to us again, in any way, especially it could be a Holocaust of Israel.

Why study the Holocaust?

Why study the Holocaust?
A Photo for the Album, drawing by Jan Komski, Holocaust survivor.