Has “Never again” lost its meaning?

Saturday, January 27, 2018
Professor Alain Goldschläger, Holocaust historian at Western University in London, Ontario.

On January 27, 1945, Soviet forces liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. At this notorious site, Nazi Germany, under Adolf Hitler, murdered more than a million people – almost one million of them were Jews. In 2005, the United Nations designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Every year, this day offers an opportunity and obligation to remember the Nazis’ attempt to eradicate the Jewish people in the Holocaust, as well as their targeted attacks against many other groups and individuals.

In recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day 2018, Museum researcher-curator Dr. Jeremy Maron spoke with Professor Alain Goldschläger, a Holocaust historian and professor at Western University in London, Ontario.

Dr. Jeremy Maron: Why is it important for the world to remember and commemorate the Holocaust? Why is it important that this is an international day?

Professor Alain Goldschläger: The Holocaust happened in a physical place, which is of course Europe from 1940 to 1945. But, it is also a prototype of a genocide. So, this is a day of reflection on what genocide itself can be. The day of remembrance is as much about placing the events of today in perspective as it is about remembering the past, and linking the past with what happens today. It’s really important for everybody in the world to reflect on it. It is not without reason that the United Nations has chosen the Holocaust specifically to draw attention and insisted on education on the Holocaust. All other genocides that have marked the 20th century are definitely related in some form to the Holocaust…Our global society has been marked by it. 

JM: As the world reflects on the Holocaust, commemoration will of course take different forms. As a Holocaust scholar, how do you see your role in relation in Holocaust remembrance?

AG: We are bombarded by so much information every single day. We barely have any time to consider an international event, as everything unfolds at an incredible pace. International Holocaust Remembrance Day really invites us to stop and consider one event and reflect on it.

As researchers, we have to relate what the past has been. A very difficult part of our work is to make people understand the logic of the policies, the actions, the total process – in the spirit of what happened. The big danger is if people can only see the event through the lens of the 21st century. If you want to understand how the Holocaust happened, if you want to have a precise understanding of the society, the principles, the psychology and the thinking of people of the time, if you want to understand what made it possible to happen, you have to go back. It’s only by being able to understand the way people of the 1930s were considering the world around them that we can really understand that period. Only then can we hope to be able to have effective action to counter genocide. And so, when we say “Remember the Holocaust,” we reflect on how a genocide came to be.  

JM: Have you noticed any kind of trends or changes in your students’ willingness or ability to look back at the Holocaust with that contextual perspective? Are they willing to look back to what people in the 1930s were doing, and why they were doing what they did? 

AG: I would say that we are probably at a special time now. The events of the war are touched by the historical distance – it starts to mummify at a certain point. For instance, look at the saying “never again.” Well, the difficulty is that “never again” has almost lost any meaning. What was so powerful in 1945 is now a platitude and doesn’t mean very much. The difficulty is to push the student, to try to go back to what the people of 1945 were really perceiving, hoping, when they were saying deeply the words “never again”. The big task is to re-actualize the experience of the war and the distance is really a very difficult challenge. I have students who have travelled to Auschwitz and it is sometimes difficult for me to make them accept that they’re not going to a concentration camp, but to a museum. What they are seeing is not what inmates would have seen. Seventy years is 70 years. That’s really the biggest challenge. This “piece of history” has to be properly understood from the inside, so as to be able to offer a new vision on our world of today. 

JM: In 2005, the year the UN established International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it was the 60th anniversary year of the liberation of Auschwitz. I had a chance to go on a Holocaust commemorative tour that year. Some of the issues regarding commemoration and distance and historical past, they were very important at the time. And now, here we are, 12 years later. Since the establishment of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, do you think that there is been any shift in how our society views remembering – either the historical past generally or the Holocaust specifically? 

AG: In 2005, survivors who could actually speak were already in their 70s. They still had a lot of energy – to go to schools and speak to students. Twelve years later, we have so few survivors. What I find fairly dramatic is that in the last 10, 15, 20 years, there is a system of symbolization. What I mean is that the Holocaust and the experience of the camps seems to be symbolized uniquely by Auschwitz. Everybody speaks exclusively of Auschwitz. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the last calculations were that there were more than 50,000 camps – small, big, temporary. There were hundreds and hundreds of important major camps, and in the memory it seems that all the camps are now becoming reduced to only one. And that is very sad. The cruelty and the experience of the inmates of other camps were equal or similar to Auschwitz and the pain of any ghetto or camp victim has to be appreciated equally. I think the next generation of speakers and scholars and educators needs to say, “Wait a minute, let’s not just have everything symbolized as one camp, one country, one, one, one, one.” The Holocaust is unique by its scope, involving so many different countries, and so many cultural and political societies. And that’s where, even if you look at other genocides like Rwanda, for instance, or Darfur, you have one or two societies at stake and participating. With the Holocaust we have many countries of Europe, which had each their specific dynamic. 

Another aspect that I find sometimes difficult to deal with is the temptation of many educators to enter in some kind of competition about “who has suffered most.” And that can be dangerous. It’s like, “The people who went to Auschwitz suffered more than the ones who went to Buchenwald or went to Dachau.” There is no scale of suffering in a genocide. Everybody suffers and it’s totally unacceptable to say one human suffered more because he went there as opposed to another place. 

JM: For people who might want to use International Holocaust Remembrance Day as an opportunity to share information about the Holocaust, perhaps with their young children in age-appropriate ways (which is always a challenge), do you have any strategies that you might recommend? 

AG: Probably the most important thing would be to stop everything and do something specific. Let’s say, to take a child to a museum. If you are living in Winnipeg, take your child to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and reflect on human rights, reflect on the special exhibit there. Reflect and stop. Get out of the year 2018. Stop time and think about what a museum like that can give you. Even if you are not Jewish, maybe go to a synagogue, go to a Jewish centre and see what they are showing there and reflect on it.  

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