The Soviet army entered Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, and liberated more than 7,000 remaining prisoners, who were mostly ill and dying. At least 1.3 million people had been deported from German-occupied Europe to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945; of this number, 1.1 million were murdered there, nearly all of them Jews.
When most people hear the word Auschwitz they think of a single building or a small cluster of buildings, perhaps a gas chamber and a crematorium. But Auschwitz was a complex of more than 40 concentration and extermination sites built for the “final solution” to the problem of the Jews – their complete elimination. Auschwitz was only one of 42,500 labor, transit, concentration, and extermination camps; 15-20 million people were imprisoned or died at these sites.
How does someone get “liberated” from Auschwitz? I don’t ask this question in the actual sense of being free from incarceration, but “liberated” from having been there or from the overwhelming burden of its significance.
A meeting of CHAIM
A few weeks ago, I attended a Sunday afternoon gathering in a Minneapolis living room that looked like any other social convening, with lots of food and camaraderie. But there was a significant difference. This was a meeting of CHAIM: Children of Holocaust Survivors Association in Minnesota.
Everyone in that living room was a child or grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, second generation (known as 2G) or third generation (3G). Some of their parents or grandparents had been in extermination camps like Auschwitz. Other parents had survived ghettos, labor camps, or lives in hiding or on the run.
Is anyone ever “liberated” from the experience of being hunted down for death because of being a Jew?
Some of the 2Gs spoke about the terrifying rise of anti-semitism in our country. There have been three recent mass shootings of Jews in the U.S., including at synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Poway, California. There are now armed guards at most synagogues. One 2G said that when she gets near her synagogue, which she knows is now heavily fortified, she debates whether to put herself in potential danger and go in. The effort gets harder each time, she said, but she continues to attend.
Two other people talked about what to do on Hanukkah. It is a celebration of Jews’ successful struggle for religious freedom long ago. We light candles in a menorah for eight nights to commemorate the hard-won freedom then, and the legendary miracle of a drop of oil that shone brightly for eight days and eight nights as a symbol of that freedom. According to tradition, the menorah is to be placed outside one’s door or in a window close to the street to publicize the miracle.
Some of the 2Gs at this meeting said they were afraid to be so public with their practice of Judaism today. This was even before the stabbings at a Hanukkah party held at a rabbi’s home in New York, which certainly has increased everyone’s fear.
Fortresses don’t stop hate
Both the mayor and the governor of New York, where there have been several dozen anti-semitic incidents in the past few weeks, have announced increased police protection in Jewish neighborhoods and at synagogues and other Jewish venues. Clearly this is needed, but it is not the answer. Fortresses do not stop hate; instead, they frighten and isolate those who need to be protected and make them feel even more like victims. Adding Holocaust-themed education in the schools, a widely discussed option, is not the answer, either, although it, too, is needed. Unfortunately, learning about hate in the past is no guarantee of preventing hate today.
The answers are complicated. First, global leaders must unite against all forms of hate directed at people based on their identity: race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, political ideology, sexual orientation and gender identity, etc. The failure of nations of the world to offer safety to Jews in 1938 at the Évian Conference in France, when Jews were pleading for a haven somewhere, anywhere, ultimately led to the annihilation of 6 million Jews. Today, from Poway to Paris, Jews face anti-semitism unlike anything since the 1930s in Germany. We must not turn a blind eye this time.
Second, countries must punish perpetrators of these crimes with methods that are swift, sure, and severe. Hate crime legislation in the U.S. is highly variable across the country and its enforcement is even more variable. There must be uniformity from state to state, supported by strong and strictly enforced laws at the federal level.
Stand with marginalized people
Third, each of us must stand with and for those who are marginalized in our own communities. We must not tolerate the swastikas, racial epithets, and hateful messages that have appeared in Edina, Minneapolis, St. Cloud, St. Paul, and elsewhere. I live in Edina, where there have been at least eight recent incidents of swastikas and racial slurs painted in public spaces. Someone said to me, referring to this manifestation of hate, “This isn’t really who we are.” Unfortunately, it is becoming clear that this is who we really are – and we must change. We cannot wait another moment to speak up. End the legacy of Auschwitz.
The science of epigenetics inarguably informs us that the trauma of genocide is transmitted through survivors’ genes. This heritability affects the next generation in cognitive and emotional ways. Survivors’ children will therefore never be truly “liberated” from Auschwitz; they carry its genetic imprint and it will be passed on to their children and their children’s children.
It is up to us to stop the next generations from enduring the trauma of hate.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
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