May 8, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in Bild.
May 8th marks the 76th anniversary of the defeat of Germany and its unconditional surrender to the Allied forces. Fortunately, it came 988 years short of Hitler’s prediction of a thousand-year reign, but not soon enough for the tens of millions of victims of Nazism.
As the child of two Holocaust survivors, one of whom spent childhood years in Berlin, the anniversary for me is a time for remembrance, reflection, and rededication.
As the eyewitnesses, liberators, and survivors of the war become ever fewer, it is the responsibility of subsequent generations to carry the torch of memory.
Yet, according to surveys in Europe and the United States, ignorance about the Nazi era is both widespread and shocking, especially among young people on both sides of the Atlantic.
Why is memory so consequential? Three reasons.
First, the six million Jewish victims, and countless others targeted by the Nazis, deserve no less. They cannot simply be allowed to become abstract numbers in a book or lifeless figures in a chart. They had ambitions, dreams, hopes, families, and friends. They worked, studied, created, laughed, and loved.
They need to be recalled not only for the suffering and deaths they endured, but also for the lives they sought to live and for all that was lost as a result of their tragic fate.
Second, the speed with which Germany descended into tyranny in 1933 is a sobering reminder of the fragility of democracy, even in a highly educated, advanced nation, as Germany most assuredly was at the time. That lesson needs to be enduring, for there is no assurance that what happened once could not occur again.
And third, the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau must be permanent reminders of the scale of bestiality to which humankind, alas, can descend. Moreover, the pathway to the slave labor and death camps, it should be recalled, began years earlier with grotesque words, wild conspiracy theories, ghoulish images, and elaborate racial theories. Step by step, law by law, action by action, demonization led to destruction.
Reflection prompts me to pause from the daily routine and try to grasp the magnitude of what happened — the countless people who abandoned any semblance of humanity to participate in a cataclysmic war, formally launched by Germany against Poland on September 1, 1939 (but, in actuality, started earlier), that destroyed entire nations, uprooted tens of millions, changed national borders, murdered two-thirds of European Jewry, and left scars that to this day cannot fully heal, including in my own family.
And the perpetrators and their enablers, let us recall, included mothers and fathers, doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, scientists, and others who threw morality to the wind in support of a maniacal, genocidal, hypnotically cultish killing machine.
How could it be that there were no societal brakes, no ethical qualms, no religious convictions, no human instincts, to curb the unhinged extremism of so many millions? For me, these have always been haunting questions without answers, even more so when it comes to the systematic, premeditated murder of children — yes, of beautiful, innocent, defenseless children.
At the same time, apart, of course, from the valiant and, ultimately, victorious soldiers of the Allied nations, a few people under occupation did resist and rescue, even at perilous risk to their own lives. We must reflect on their noble examples as well, for they offer a way forward to humankind.
What motivated them to reject submission, to fight back, to help others whom they often did not know, and to see the human spark in them?
Even as we reflect on these issues, important as they so obviously are, it is totally insufficient.
Nothing can bring back the six million Jewish victims, including 1.5 million children; or the murdered Roma, homosexuals, priests, political prisoners, Russians and Poles, partisans, and disabled; or the millions of soldiers and civilians who lost their lives at the hands of Nazi Germany and its Axis allies.
What is needed, above all, is rededication to basic values — the spirit of true democracy and the rule of law; recognition that all human beings are created in the image of God; respect for the fabric and fiber of pluralistic and diverse societies; and genuine solidarity with one another.
76 years after the end of World War II, we are witnessing growing hatred and polarization, abetted by declining confidence in liberal democracy and communicated via powerful, lightning-fast technologies.
Antisemitism is rising. So is vilification of Israel, the world’s only Jewish-majority nation, which is threatened with annihilation by Iran, a UN member state, even as some European countries seek closer business ties with it. Holocaust denial is a thriving industry.
Scapegoating, stereotyping, and suspicion of immigrants, especially of different races and religious backgrounds from the majority populations, are alive and well.
Apropos, it was only 26 years ago that the mass murder of an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys took place in Srebrenica, Bosnia. They were killed simply because of who they were — in a continent, it should be noted, that vowed never to repeat the tragedies of an earlier era.
History has taught us that amnesia, apathy, and silence can never be the answers to the dangers that lurk.
Only the combined strength, solidarity, and clear-eyed resolve of democratic nations, institutions, and individuals of goodwill can chart the way to the age-old vision of a world at peace and in harmony — a world far removed from the darkness that descended on January 30, 1933 and ended on May 8, 1945.
David Harris is Chief Executive Officer of American Jewish Committee (AJC). Follow him on Twitter @DavidHarrisAJC