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We must end the legacy of Auschwitz

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Auschwitz was a complex of more than 40 concentration and extermination sites.

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?

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
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.

Join us at World Without Genocide on Jan. 23, 7 p.m. at Mitchell Hamline School of Law for a program reflecting on World War II. Reservations are required.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.


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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/13/2020 - 10:04 am.

    “…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…”

    Without discounting the overall message of the column that bigotry is bad, and can have multigenerational effects, is there any basis for “epigenetics” as a science? Specifically, I’m more than a little bit skeptical of Ms. Kennedy’s assumption that the effects of trauma (e.g., Auschwitz) can be passed on genetically to one’s children and even grandchildren.

    I admit to no expertise in these matters at all, but don’t recall reading anything in the mainstream press that suggests such a phenomenon has scientific validity. If it was widely accepted, I can’t help but think that I’d have encountered this notion at some previous point in my 75 years.

    With that caveat, I heartily endorse the anti-discriminatory message of the column as a whole. Children are not born with racial, social, ethnic or religious prejudices – those have to be learned, and usually from trusted caregivers or close associates. Every bigot had to be taught that bigotry.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/13/2020 - 10:19 am.

      Epigenetics is real science. It refers to the effect of chemicals that attach themselves to DNA molecules without becoming a part of the DNA sequence.

      The question of whether trauma can be inherited is still inconclusive.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 01/13/2020 - 10:28 am.

      Here’s what I found on Wikiipedia:

    • Submitted by Tim Walker on 01/13/2020 - 03:58 pm.

      How is epigenetics different from Lysenkoism, which has been totally discredited?

      BTW, I visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial sites in the summer of 2019, and I recommend that everyone try to get there sometime in their lives.

      The visit was so viscerally moving that I think about it every day. It *will* affect you profoundly.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/14/2020 - 09:17 am.

        Lysenkoism rejected the entire science of genetics, and the existence of genes. It was more of a political doctrine than a scientific theory.

  2. Submitted by Brian Scholin on 01/13/2020 - 05:49 pm.

    I have visited a number of camps, but Auschwitz really is exceptionally memorable. It is the only one I have seen that was clearly a large, well-organized, killing factory, and nothing else. Everyone who has the opportunity should visit.

    Beyond that, it was jarring to me to view all the exhibits illustrating every aspect of the war, with no mention I saw of the American role. It made me much more aware of how faulty our belief in American exceptionalism is. Not that we didn’t do a lot to win that war, but that we often overlook the heroic efforts of other countries – including the Soviet Union. We certainly had a large part to play, but others also gave what they could.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/14/2020 - 08:37 am.

    It’s a tad unfortunate that Ms. Kennedy tucks that comment about epigenetics into the end of her otherwise well written and reasoned article.

    The claim that DNA records episodic memory as well as genetic memory and somehow transmits event consciousness from one generation to the next is extremely problematic and may well be a pseudo-scientific claim. The article would be stronger if this reference were deleted.

    Regardless of the scientific or pseudo-scientific nature of this epigenetic claim, the fact is it’s unnecessary. It looks to me like Ms. Kennedy is describing and discussion historical trauma, and there’s simply no need to appeal to molecular biology to have THAT conversation, and in fact Kennedy does a pretty good job of discussing without the “scientific” reference at the end.

    Other groups are having similar conversations about historical trauma, Native Americans and black Americans for instance. We don’t want to devolve into competing narratives but one way of interpreting Ms. Kennedy’s call to stand with marginalized people might be to recognize other claims of historical trauma and other traumatized groups.

    One thing that is probably critical to understand about historical trauma is the fact that it’s not a conversation about placing trauma and events in the past. Were it not for ongoing oppression, prejudice, discrimination, and violence, here and now- these would be very different conversations.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/14/2020 - 02:07 pm.

    This was a good article until Kennedy veered off into some pseudoscientific nonsense. Yikes.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/14/2020 - 07:14 pm.

    No desire to be yes it is no it isn’t but there have been many conversations about the after effects of slavery and how they still hang today on the descendants. As Ray noted above, it is not my area of expertise.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/14/2020 - 07:25 pm.

    I am reminded of the Pulitzer winner Maus by this article. No question the species or at least something in it needs an overhaul. Or some frontal lobe enhancement.
    This is a valuable resource. You a person going to this site can view that there is plenty of resources…

    Epigenetic …well a new term for me. The best I can get out of looking to see what it might be is the study of how living, my words now, near Love Canal might alter dna to cause a cancer or create a cancer cluster. As to the affect being passed down that seems to need more research. But in the big picture of evolution change does take place somehow. This is one source I looked at. Wether it is reputable is beyond me.

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