Commentary Magazine

Now, More than Ever, Holocaust Memory Matters

AP Photo/Markus Schreibe

Yes. That’s the answer to a question posed by the headline of Shmuel Rosner’s latest piece in the New York Times. Yes: Israeli students need to visit Auschwitz. All Jewish students should. Plenty of non-Jews, too.

Rosner disagrees. His piece, pegged to the news of Poland’s decision to “outlaw claims of Polish complicity in the Holocaust,” misguidedly argues that trips in which Israeli students visit the Polish death camps should end because “they contribute to a misperception by many Jews that remembering the Holocaust is the main feature of Judaism,” and because “they perpetuate the myth that Israel itself is born only of the ashes of Europe.”

Rosner goes on to cite a Pew study which found that “73 percent of American Jews believe ‘remembering the Holocaust’ is essential to being Jewish.” Rosner may mourn this statistic, but memory, in general, is a key part of Judaism. It’s also not entirely clear to me why anyone would consider it problematic for a people to prioritize the commemoration of the worst period in the entire history of their peoplehood. Maybe Rosner would also object to celebrating Passover, a holiday all about memory and remembrance.

If Rosner is truly concerned that Israeli students will exit Auschwitz with the belief that “Israel itself is born only of the ashes of Europe,” he should focus on improving the Israeli education system. I, for one, do not believe for a moment that students educated about the history of their own country would leave Poland with this assumption. If they did, it means their schooling needs to be improved, not that these trips need to be canceled.

The other piece of this is that we’re fighting a losing battle. How many Jews care today about the Spanish Inquisition? How many feel a visceral reaction when hearing the names Ferdinand and Isabella? We should be encouraging and funding more educational missions that solidify our remembrance of, and connection to our ancestors’ pasts. The farther away we get from the years of the Holocaust, the easier it will be to make denials—and those denials will be increasingly persuasive. That Rosner has concluded anything other than this from Poland’s recent decision is beyond baffling.

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