My grandparents and many members of my family were exterminated by the Nazis. I would probably also have perished had my parents not had the foresight of leaving Antwerp when I was a young infant on what was probably the last boat to sail to Australia before the outbreak of war.
Like survivors, those of us whose families were murdered by the Nazis retain the memory of the Holocaust as part of our DNA. Indeed, in most cases this also applies to our children, who share the sensitivities of their parents.
But today, 70 years later, for our grandchildren, most of whom were deprived of the opportunity of hearing their families agonize over memories, the relevance of the Holocaust will fade unless there is a conscious effort to convey it within the framework of their history.
The extent to which Holocaust commemoration is maintained by future Jewish generations will largely be determined by the educational approach and curriculum provided in the Israeli school system.
We should be under no illusions. The so-called Holocaust commemoration in Europe and other Western countries is a sham. In most cases it trivializes the Holocaust by linking it to other mass murders. In fact, commemoration has become so broad and universal that the words “Jew” and “anti-Semitism” are not even mentioned in the European Union’s lengthy call to its constituents to engage in Holocaust remembrance.
If Holocaust awareness truly existed, it would have been inconceivable for the current anti-Semitic tsunami to have swept through the continent of Europe, which was soaked with the blood of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
In fact, a survey of adults in 101 countries reveals that only 54% had ever heard of the Holocaust, and a large proportion of these considered it a myth.
With the actual number of survivors dramatically diminishing, Holocaust deniers have proliferated and indeed today there is a growing campaign, spearheaded by Islamic anti-Semites, promoting Holocaust denial.
As Jews, I believe that it is our obligation to ensure that this dark chapter of our history is commemorated and studied by future Jewish generations. This is not merely to honor our martyrs but to appreciate the contrast between the Jewish people today, which, with the revival of nationhood, can defend itself, and the powerlessness of those dark years when the world stood by as we were being murdered. If we follow the double standards and bias currently leveled against us, particularly at the United Nations, often with the support or indifference of the Europeans, we must appreciate how fortunate we are today that we are able to rely on our own defenses.
There are some, including far-left Israelis, who seek to scale down or even cancel Holocaust commemoration within Israel on the spurious grounds that it is exploited to create an environment of Jewish victimhood and as a means of extorting money and political favors from European countries.
This would be disastrous because it is imperative that future generations understand what happened to their European ancestors and realize that the state in which they live cannot be taken for granted.
As we commemorate our Exodus from Egyptian slavery to freedom, so we are obliged to remind ourselves how, after 2,000 years of exile and immediately in the wake of the most barbaric genocide, we revived Jewish nationhood in the State of Israel.
My grandson returned a few weeks ago from his school’s journey to the Polish death camps. Even though his family was already sensitive to the Holocaust, the visit had a profound impact on him.
I was therefore deeply saddened to read that the principal of Tel Aviv’s prestigious elite secular Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium, Dr. Zeev Dagani, proposes canceling annual trips to the Nazi death camps. He claims that “there are many youth who are not emotionally built to grasp the reality of the horror. It is too much for them and I think it is too early to send 16- and 17-year-olds to trips to Poland. It is a trip which requires emotional and intellectual maturity.”
The reality is that if adequate education is provided and the tours are led by well-informed guides, the results have proven to be extraordinary and have major beneficial impact on the participants, not only in terms of comprehending the Holocaust, but equally so in relation to their understanding and appreciation of the Jewish state.
There is a valid complaint that the escalating costs prevent some students from participating. This is something the government should be reviewing with the aim of providing subsidies to enable all students who wish to participate. It would prove to be a worthwhile long-term educational investment.
Of course, it is sickening to hear of occasional groups visiting a death camp and engaging in drinking parties in the evening or interspersing their visit with a shopping day in Warsaw. Under such circumstances, it would undoubtedly be preferable to cancel such trips.
But most trips are well-planned and have immense educational impact, highlighting the emergence of a Jewish state like a phoenix from the ashes of the Holocaust – something that no classroom study course can replicate.
I listened in awe as my grandson described how his group visited Rachel’s Tomb before the flight, and on their return, assembled for a moving ceremony at the Western Wall. He described how some of the most moving moments for him were not merely the camps, the museums or even the crematoria and gas chambers. What touched him most profoundly was standing on the soil where hundreds of thousands of Jews had been brutally murdered and where their bodies had been buried in mass graves.
The immensity of what transpired during that terrible period was further realized when he and his companions related to numbers comprising their own home communities and appreciated that more than the equivalent of an entire community were murdered in one single day.
The trip also highlighted the extraordinary thriving religious, cultural and social life of the great Jewish communities in Poland – snuffed out overnight by the Nazis.
Unless we continue to educate the younger generations so they appreciate the lessons of the Holocaust and its relationship to our status today as an independent Jewish state able to defend itself as well as providing a haven for Jews in distress, we will have betrayed our solemn commitment to remember. And this terrible episode will simply become a footnote of history.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom