Most Americans are familiar with the Holocaust, but few understand the scope of its destruction. Just 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and other German death camps, fewer than half of all Americans (45%) know that 6 million Jews were killed as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Monday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, yet our collective memory of history’s most horrific genocide seems to be growing dim. We forget at our own peril.
The same hatred and prejudice that propelled the Nazi regime and its collaborators toward the annihilation of Jews in the 1930s and 1940s is again on the rise globally. According to a study by the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University, 2018 witnessed a 13% increase in the number of violent, anti-Semitic attacks around the world, including the largest number of Jews killed, compared to previous years.
“If anti-Semitism is a disease, what we are experiencing today is a global epidemic,” said Clifford D. May, Founder and President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), in testimony before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security earlier this month. “Jew-hatred has become not just widely acceptable but edgy, if not fashionable — even in lands where there are virtually no Jews.”
Anti-Semitism in the Headlines
In the U.S. alone, several high-profile examples of anti-Semitism have made the headlines:
- In early December 2019, two gunmen targeted a kosher grocery story in Jersey City that left four people dead after an hours-long standoff with police and hundreds of rounds fired
- Also last month, New York City reported more than a dozen attacks in Jewish neighborhoods over a three-week span, including the stabbing of five people in the basement of a Hasidic Rabbi in Monsey during Hanukkah celebrations
- The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was the scene of a mass shooting in October 2018 — the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States — that left 11 worshipers dead and six others wounded.
Anti-Semitic violence is by no means limited to the U.S. In fact, FDD’s May suggests it is the pervasive anti-Jew, anti-Zionist worldview of nations, non-governmental organizations, and even the United Nations that has aided anti-Jewish and anti-Israel activism. According to May, “Ill winds from around the world are fanning the flames of the current rise in anti-Semitic domestic terrorism.”
Global Leaders Gather at World Holocaust Forum
Leaders from nearly 50 countries gathered this week at the The fifth annual World Holocaust Forum. Entitled, “World Holocaust Forum 2020 — Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism,” the memorial event took place at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. In his remarks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered words of gratitude to the Allies who liberated the Jewish people from the Nazis. But he also offered a sharp warning against the growing trend of anti-Semitism in this era:
“We also remember that some 80 years ago, when the Jewish people faced annihilation, the world largely turned its back on us, leaving us to the most bitter of fates.”
When Adolf Hitler began his rise to power, the world paid little attention to his words, though these words and his intentions were clear. The world ignored the spread of hateful Nazi propaganda; it dismissed the dehumanizing rhetoric. But for a few who sounded the alarm, the world did not wake up in time.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day serves as a fitting and somber reminder that this dark stain of human history remains. Each generation is obligated to see the stain, recognize it, understand it and apply its lessons — because ignorance of the past dooms us to repeat our mistakes.
Honoring the Memories of Voices Lost
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Among the many ways to honor the memories of victims on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I offer a few suggestions:
Violins of Hope
There is an artisan in Israel whose name is Amnon Weinstein. Like his father before him, Amnon builds and restores violins and other stringed instruments. Over the years he has repaired and assembled an extraordinary collection — more than 85 violins, each with a unique story of the Holocaust.
Amnon lost 400 members of his extended family to the Holocaust. He has spent a lifetime reclaiming fragments of memories through the restoration of the instruments left behind — in homes, on train platforms, in forgotten corners of concentration camp bunk houses.
“Violins of Hope is a monument to 6 million people who cannot talk, cannot speak, cannot say anything,” says Amnon in an interview for PBS. “The Violins of Hope is like a huge forest of sounds. And each sound is standing for a boy, a girl, a man, a woman that will never talk again. But the violins, when they are played on, they will speak for them. You can hear history.”
Amnon shares his violins, loaning them out to orchestras around the world, that they may enjoy renewed life on the stage. And, that the stories of the original owners may be remembered and the Holocaust never forgotten.
- Readers in Southern California can hear the Violins of Hope for themselves at a concert this April 18 and 19, performed by the New West Symphony under the direction of Maestro Michael Christie. Click here for details.
- Here is a short documentary from PBS you can watch that tells the story of Amnon Weinstein called, Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust.
- Finally, read the full story of Amnon Weinstein in James A. Grymes’ account, Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust — Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour.
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Brundibar is another example of art triumphing over evil.
In the small town of Terezin in occupied Czechoslovakia, the Nazis established the Theresienstadt concentration camp as part of its propaganda machine. Described by the Reich as a “spa town” where Jews could “retire” to safety, the camp, in fact, served as a transport hub. The Nazis ultimately deported some 90,000 Czech Jews from Thereisienstadt to the death camps further east.
As part of its elaborate ruse to fool the international community, the Nazis “beautified” the camp. They also created a cultural center that showcased the many Jewish artists, writers, actors and musicians housed at the camp.
Hans Krasa, himself a Jew and resident at Theresienstadt, composed Brundibar as a children’s opera. It premiered in 1943, and a company of child actors (camp residents) performed before a visiting coalition of the International Red Cross in 1944. That performance became the subject of a Nazi propaganda film intended to depict the carefree life in the camps. Two weeks after the Red Cross performance, the Nazis ordered artists in the production transported to Auschwitz. Many of the voices of Brundibar were silenced, but a few remained and the opera is now performed around the world.