When the plans for last week’s World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem were first announced, they were met with great excitement. Linked to International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, the event at Yad Vashem was viewed as an opportunity for serious discussion and meaningful introspection, all built upon a deepened understanding of what is recognized to be the worst event of the 20th century. But that was not to be. Instead of a somber world gathering with meaningful analysis and engagement, the gathering devolved into a political showcase for many of the 40 world leaders in attendance, who selfishly sought to use the Holocaust to advance their own political agendas.
One exception was Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of Germany, who dolefully and humbly told the gathering, “I wish I could say that we Germans have learned from history once and for all. But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading.” Notably, he delivered his address in English, so that no one would be upset by the sound of German at such a solemn occasion.
Steinmeir’s humility contrasted sharply with the bravado of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who made the outrageous assertion that 40% of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust were Soviet citizens, even though the consensus among historians is that about 15% of Jews killed were in the Soviet Union.
Could it have had something to do with the ongoing sparring over Poland’s complicity in Nazi genocide? For his part, Poland’s president refused to attend the Jerusalem gathering — a sign, said observers, that the ceremony’s Israeli hosts had been drawn into the dispute between Poland and Russia and were tilting in support of Putin.
Others, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, invoked many of the proper words, emotions, and thoughts about the Holocaust and its impact, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to try to score political points, directing much of their ire to Iran, which Netanyahu called “the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet.”
The gathering was not a great day for Holocaust education. And it came in the wake of the release of a disturbing study by the Pew Research Center, which found that only 45% of Americans surveyed could correctly pick, from a multiple choice list, the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. But while this sort of ignorance may surprise most Jews, it isn’t new. A study last year found that two-thirds of American millennials could not identify what Auschwitz is.
Just what these figures mean is unclear. But whatever the remedy to cure the ignorance, it also requires an acceptance by world leaders of all stripes that the painful story and lesson of the Holocaust needs to be recounted, remembered, and respected for the deep outrage it was, and mourned respectfully and appropriately.