How is Holocaust commemoration changing?

Holocaust survivor Alfred Munzer lights a candle at Holocaust commemoration event
Holocaust survivor Alfred Munzer lights a candle at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2020 International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. (Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Thursday marked the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, commemorated by the United Nations since 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the United States, it often complements Yom Hashoah, Israel’s national date of remembrance, which this year falls in April.

Steven Salzberg, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, said that the two events, which in the early years after the Holocaust also served to recognize those who had survived the Holocaust, have gained increasing significance in recent years not just as a memorial and commemoration of survivors’ experiences, but as an educational tool by which to teach future generations about the Holocaust and its impact.

“[Holocaust Remembrance Day] was their day for [survivors] to remember their families. It was the special day for them,” said Salzberg, a psychiatrist in the Baltimore area who treats victims of trauma.

The increasing loss of survivors, however, has brought about a shift in how the Holocaust is recognized in annual events.

“I think there has been a bit more of an intellectual approach than an emotional approach now,” Salzberg said. “That’s not a bad thing. It’s just we don’t have the actual survivors present.”

Salzberg noted that second- and third-generation family members are now stepping up to recognize the survivors, who in many cases made sure their children and grandchildren were aware that the Holocaust had occurred and its legacy. He said that has changed the tenor of the commemoration, but it’s also increased opportunities for educational events.

Salzberg, for example, volunteers at schools and other events to talk about the impact of the Holocaust, his father’s legacy as a survivor and “the horrors of what was done to them.” He said the strength that they often had to find in themselves is now becoming part of the story that is shared in events.

“It’s not to discount the horrors, it’s just that I’m always amazed at what people did within themselves to be able make it through [the Holocaust] and make it through the time after it [as a survivor],” he said.

For many of the organizations that help organize yearly remembrance day events, the pandemic has also had a significant role in how commemorations are now held.

Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, acknowledged that his organization was forced to pivot to virtual programming a couple of years ago because of the pandemic. And while it meant that attendees couldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder, grieve together or acknowledge the past together in a community setting, it still reached a significantly greater number of viewers. Last year’s virtual Yom Hashoah commemoration was viewed by 900 people in real time, and 14,000 viewers watched the recording on YouTube afterward. By hosting the event online and then making it available as a recording, they were able to reach people not only across the country, but across the world.

“What we found out is that [virtual programming] is the way of the future,” Halber said.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., also hosted their International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration online on Jan. 26.

“This year, International Holocaust Remembrance Day comes at a pivotal moment for our nation and the world,” said Kristy Buechner, communications specialist for the USHMM. “The Holocaust serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of unchecked hatred and the fragility of societies. Its lessons have never been more relevant.

“As antisemitism, racism and neo- Nazism are becoming more mainstream, we must commit ourselves to learning the lessons from this dark chapter in history and acting on them,” Buechner continued. “A commitment to shaping a better future is precisely what we owe the victims of the past.”

Correction 2/3/22: An earlier version of this article said this year was the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. It is actually the 77th year.

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