Time to remember more than one atrocity? A defense of Holocaust Remembrance Day

There’s a reason we take a special day to remember the Holocaust.

Wreaths are placed at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Berlin, Jan. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

(RNS) — Last week, as the world commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day, the opinion staff at the Courier Journal, a revered Louisville, Kentucky, paper now owned by Gannett, decided it was time to shake up a commemoration they felt was far too focused on one group of victims. The day, they opined, “is a time to remember more than one atrocity.”

The Courier Journal explained that since Jews “do not have a monopoly on persecution” and since “Hitler was just one of many dictators,” the annual marking of the Holocaust should be repurposed as an honoring of the victims of “every genocide” instead.

Much tweeting ensued, chastising the Kentucky paper for its perceived insensitivity. This might have been expected: In 2019, after successfully fighting to expand a resolution condemning antisemitism to include anti-Muslim discrimination, some members of Congress were lambasted for downplaying recent attacks on and murders of Jews. 

Although elements of the op-ed were indeed ugly — it didn’t only suggest extending the memorial day, it in effect accused “one religion” of considering animus toward them as “more important” than hatred aimed at others — it provided something of a teaching moment. The subject of the lesson: “Was the Holocaust in any way unique?”

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There have, after all, been mass killings throughout history — many, tragically, within living memory. Millions starved to death under callous government programs or were outright murdered in the former Soviet Union. Millions more have perished in conflicts in Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Darfur — to name just a horrific few. 

And during the Holocaust itself, of course, other groups were murdered by the Nazis: Romani (Roma and Sinti peoples), political dissidents, criminals of various sorts, physically and mentally disabled people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Poles and Slavs. 

Still and all, and horrific body counts aside, the Nazi Endlösung — “Final Solution” — was primarily an answer for “der Judenfrage” — “the Jewish question.”

Other than Jews (and, arguably, Romanis, hundreds of thousands of whom were killed by the Nazis), no other identifiable ethnic or religious group was seen by the Third Reich as deserving of annihilation. 

Even in his final moments, Hitler obsessed over the Jews, charging his followers shortly before his suicide to demonstrate “merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples, international Jewry.”

Only Jews were identified as a noxious threat to humanity itself; only they were targeted for total genocide, both within and without Germany’s border. And only they suffered so great a loss of life by the hands of the Third Reich and its henchmen. Fully two-thirds of European Jewry perished in the Holocaust.

Yehuda Bauer, one of the world’s premier historians on the Holocaust, has long pointed to the similarities between the Holocaust and other genocides and has repeatedly called for resistance to all oppression and intolerance throughout the world. But he concedes the unprecedented aspects of the massacre of the Jews, noting, amid much else, that every genocide, however defined, and most mass murders of all kinds are rationalized by some pragmatic concern, be it economic, political, tribal, military interests — some craving for land, power or possessions. 

But Nazi antisemitic ideology, he notes, was not based on any economic or social or political basis. The Nazis, he explains, did not kill the Jews in order to get their property. They took their property because they killed the Jews — for an ideology that dehumanized them. “The killing was ideological,” he has said, “and the robbery was a corollary to murder, not its cause.”

The Nazis spoke of the Jewish desire for world control, he relates, “which of course was a mirror image of their own dream to rule the world.”

So there is indeed reason to put the Holocaust into a special category, even amid countless other horrific mass-murder sprees. Add to that the fact that Jew hatred is something that has infected the world virtually since there were Jews. 

Some 2,000 years ago, the Greek writer Apion shared his bitter hatred of Jews and falsely accused them of all sorts of devious practices. Some early church fathers, such as John Chrysostom, followed suit. The Middle Ages brought blood libels against Jews and similarly baseless accusations of well-poisoning by Jews. Then there were the expulsions of Jews from many European countries and murderous pogroms, local slaughters of Jewish men, women and children, in others. 

The Holocaust, thus, can be regarded as the culmination of literally millennia of Jew hatred. For that alone, it arguably deserves special focus.

And, finally, a reason for emphasizing the Holocaust lies in the persistence of the hatred it signifies. White supremacists and Black radicals alike have attacked Jews in synagogues and streets in recent years. 

It was recently reported that there is a neo-Nazi homeschooling network, based in Ohio but with members across the country. The woman who, along with her husband, runs the “huge network of people like us,” in her words, described how their family celebrated Hitler’s birthday by baking a “Führer cake”and learning about Germany. She added that she had baked “quite a few swastika items, my latest a swastika apple pie.”

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In one chilling, now-deleted post on Telegram, the woman shared an audio message of her children shouting “Sieg Heil!” — the Nazi pledge of allegiance to Hitler.

Other murderous moral outrages in history deserve their days — or weeks, or months. Schools might well serve the younger generation by dedicating more classroom hours to what happened in so many places to so many people.

But keeping intact a solemn commemoration of the Holocaust does not detract from the remembrance of these other losses. And considering the singularity — and the unfortunate continuing pertinence — of antisemitism, I’d leave Holocaust Remembrance Day alone. 

(Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization. He blogs at rabbishafran.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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