The Universal Lessons of the Holocaust
As a college professor and history romantic, one of the most rewarding experiences is to lead students to historical sites to reflect on the past and understand how it has shaped the present. In 2014, I co-lead a group of 38 people to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. All other trips in my lifetime will be judged by the response of visitors to this site.
The crowds were hushed; the ground seemed sacred. My ears seemed to strain for any echoes of the cries and shouts of its victim tenants, as if such sounds still remained in this place now a monument of memory. I took pictures of the railroad track, without knowing if it was original. I paused upon entering the crematorium, as if my safe entrance had any comparison to the historic entrances of its victims. Continuity and discontinuity played in tension, as my tour was like but unlike the history of its suffering.
Amidst this experience, I realized that the negative past can reach into subsequent generations to make a positive future. Here are some lessons of the Holocaust that are universal for all people:
1. The Holocaust fosters an immediate appreciation for the good in our lives. Any study of suffering cannot help but foster a recognition and a sense of relief that our lives are better than other’s lives.
2. The Holocaust strengthens our resolve to face suffering. Liberty should not be taken for granted, but awareness of freedom should lead to appreciation for that freedom.
3. The Holocaust provides motivation to social action. We still have time and opportunity that has not been taken from us.
The movement of Holocaust memory advocates has adopted the slogan, “We must never forget.” Likewise, the great survivor Elie Wiesel is noted as saying, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” This remembrance extends to all of us, that in the present we must stand vigilant, not with forgetfulness—but with memories of what was and what should not be again.
Leading into the gate of Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp is a train track, the host path to the valley of the shadow of death for millions of victims 75 years ago. While the image of the train track leading to the entrance is iconic—the daunting gate with its mouth of devastation, the admission to suffering and death—the awareness of the Holocaust and the powerful movements for social justice since this time invite a different image of Auschwitz. While we remember the victims, we also celebrate the survivors. We recognize the liberators who led its tenants from a camp of horror. We realize that while the path in was cloaked in deceit, the path out reveals a sense of victory against oppression. A picture of the tracks leading out (here) offers an equally powerful symbol of victory of that oppression.
While I have never seen such a picture of the tracks leading away from a death camp as a promotion of escape from the Reich, the snapshot taken there in 2014 on that index trip can offer a symbol of freedom and victory over cruelty.