It’s 1942. A man lies in his bunker, fast asleep. His roommate watches him tremble. “He must be having a nightmare,” he thinks. “Maybe I should wake him up and save him from his misery.”
But just before he shakes his roommate awake, he realizes that no matter how horrible the man’s nightmare must be, nothing can be worse than his reality.
This is one of the most horrific stories I heard about those doomed to die in occupied Nazi territories when I visited historic concentration and labor camps in Poland over winter break.
The Holocaust is a terrible moment in history we read about in school and watch in movies and documentaries. But going to the sites of terror themselves, seeing the blue gas stains in the gas chambers witnessing the true gates of hell is an entirely different experience. It brings the history to life.
Sunday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This specific day was designated by the United Nations General Assembly because it is the anniversary of the Allies’ liberation of the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. As the name of the day implies, it is our duty to remember.
But there’s a difference between remembering something and never forgetting it. It is much easier to remember the horrors of the Holocaust after hearing survivors tell their stories first hand. But as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles year after year, remembrance becomes less possible. Holocaust deniers — and I’ve had a fair number of conversations with some — certainly don’t make matters any better.
The duty to “remember” is a positive one. It implies a responsibility to bring back memories of the history, particularly on days like Holocaust Remembrance Day. But the directive to “never forget” is a more important duty. It means making sure the memories of the Holocaust live on in every context, every day — not just this past Sunday.
It means we must never forget the capability of human beings to engage in incomprehensible hatred, to plan on obliterating an entire people — innocent men, women and children. It means never forgetting the horror despite how different life may look for Jews around the world today. History is a present-tense phenomenon. Today, our duty is not to remember the Holocaust when we cross paths with a spark that reminds us of it, but to make these sparks ourselves, so we will never forget it.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, don’t just remember the suffering and the hatred. Never forget it. Never forget how a seemingly peaceful era turned indescribably horrific. Never forget how Poland went from heaven to hell for the Jews in just a few short years. Remember Auschwitz’s liberation. Remember how the world overcame Nazi hatred. But when it comes to what happened inside Auschwitz and the countless other death and labor camps, don’t just remember it today — never forget it any day.
While Jewish persecution is sparser than it has ever been — maybe in all of history — it is no secret that antisemitism is visibly on the rise. With more Jewish cemeteries desecrated, Nazi graffiti sprayed around Jewish fraternities and Jews killed over their faith, we are far from living in a world free of antisemitism.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new in Jewish history. Indeed, the famous Jewish joke is that all our holidays go something like this: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” Through all the struggles, the Jewish people have tended not to focus just on their victimhood, but rather on overcoming it. As legendary Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, “Memory is sacred, but victimhood cannot be the foundation stone of Jewish identity.”
The same is true with the Holocaust. The practice of Judaism deals with 613 God-given commandments. Philosopher Emil Fackenheim famously said that the 614th is to deny Hitler any posthumous victories. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember that commandment. But we must fulfill commandment 614 every other day, by choosing to never forget it.
Shauli Bar-On is a sophomore writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief” runs every other Tuesday.