As the number of Holocaust survivors able to give direct testimony about their horrific experiences during World War II is dropping precipitously, the Jewish community must consider how the Holocaust narrative may adjust to a future where no eyewitnesses remain.
According to Hillary Kessler-Godin, of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany based in New York, about 500,000 survivors remain alive worldwide. She estimates that there were about 16,800 survivors in Canada in 2010. About 127,000 survivors are estimated to be alive in the United States.
Speaking to these demographic realities, Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said, “As I tell my students, they are really the last generation that will be able to say they personally knew individuals who experienced the Shoah.”
As scholars and educators consider a future without survivors, some focus on preserving the literal memory of the Holocaust as both a sacred obligation to the victims and an educational tool for ensuring “Never again.” Others suggest that more effective ways to remember the tragedy will be new ritualized commemorations and even Holocaust fiction.
According to Sarna, the next generation of students will learn about the Holocaust through “received” rather than “perceived” wisdom. Since received wisdom is much more challenging to use in a commemorative event, the future will place new demands on the Jewish community. “I think what will need to happen is to somehow ritualize the commemoration of the Shoah the way we ritualize the commemoration of the destruction of the Second Temple,” Sarna said.
As the generation now coming of age moves beyond simply hearing testimony to creating new ways to mark the Holocaust and keep it meaningful, Sarna suggests that new commemorations will have to evoke multiple meanings, as does the Passover seder – with lessons ranging from man’s inhumanity to man to the importance of the State of Israel, as well as lessons of courage, resistance and the strength of the human spirit.
At the same time, the messages to young people need to be balanced if they are not to invoke what is termed “Holocaust fatigue.”
“I’m sure we do not want to teach young Jews that the only reason to be Jewish is because people want to kill and destroy Jews and… because we don’t want to give posthumous victories to Hitler,” Sarna said. “Nevertheless, I think it would be disastrous for humanity if we allowed the memory of the Shoah to dissipate. Our job is to keep the memory fresh and to ensure that these lessons are learned anew in every generation.”
For Jewish educators and museum professionals, the focus remains on survivor testimony. Diane Saltzman, director of survivor affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, suggests that the survivors – as eyewitnesses –remain our best teachers. “While we are fortunate to still have them, we are trying to document from them as much as possible about their experiences,” she said. “What they provide is something no one else can provide.”
Prof. Sara Horowitz, the director of the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, said that “the presence of Holocaust survivors has been fundamental to our understanding – to the extent that one can understand it – the horrifying fate of the murdered Jews of Europe under Nazism. Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann referred to them as ‘living documents.’
“As witnesses to the past, survivors have a unique and irreplaceable role in conveying not only what happened during those dark years, but – even more importantly – depicting the human toll of those events. As relatives and friends of the victims, they restore to us the human faces of the millions who did not survive. There is no substitute for those voices,” Horowitz said.
“We are fortunate in that many Holocaust survivors have consciously and deliberately made a stake in the future. Several important testimony projects have made it possible for thousands of Holocaust survivors to record their memories, making their faces and voices available for future generations. Survivors have written powerful memoirs. I see in my classes how powerfully these speak to students.
“Ultimately, I think that art, especially literature, will come to play an increasingly significant role in helping later generations [understand] the impact and implications of the Holocaust, not only on those who experienced it personally, but on all of us. Already in the ghettos, gifted writers expended considerable energy and scarce resources to write fiction, poetry, drama. After the war, some survivors continued to develop the literature of destruction, and their work continues to speak powerfully,” Horowitz continued.
“And writers who were in a safer place during the war, or who were born later, but who regard the Holocaust as the most significant event of our culture – and by that I mean both Jewish culture and western culture – have placed it at the centre of their writing, probing its lasting effects on all of us. If we look ahead not merely decades but centuries, I think this will become increasingly important to keeping the Holocaust in deep remembrance.”
Prof. Eric Caplan, chair of Jewish studies and director of the Jewish teacher-training program at McGill University, said, “Something precious will be lost when there are no more living survivors of the Holocaust. But there is also great power in the video testimonies that they have made.
“I have shown multiple testimonies of this sort to students in my course on the Teaching of the Holocaust and have seen first-hand how powerful these can actually be. Jews have shown a talent for creating rituals that call to mind the great events – both positive and negative – of our history. In time, emotionally and intellectually compelling rituals will be created for commemorating the Holocaust as well, and the video testimonies that survivors have left to us will no doubt play a large role in these rituals,” Caplan said.
“Six million Jews perished in the Holocaust and tens of thousands survived. It is inevitable that we can’t remember such a great number of people. But if, through education, each of us can learn about 10 victims and survivors of the Holocaust, it will be enough to keep the event vivid in our minds and protect us from forgetting that real lives were affected by this tragedy.”
Michael Marrus, Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto, places some reliance for the future on the integrity of the historical record and of the historians who have painstakingly chronicled the events of the Holocaust.
“When we worry about Holocaust memory in a world without Holocaust survivors, we discount the way that we apprehend the historical past. Inevitably, the Holocaust has become history. But that does not mean that its chain of transmission should be broken,” Marrus said.
“Fortunately, one of the goals of Nazism was decisively frustrated – the suffering and annihilation of the Jews was never hidden from view. Survivors, together with several generations of Jews and non-Jews, have bequeathed to us a wealth of information and analysis upon which we can rely.
“Holocaust history is now an international and thriving enterprise, operating at the highest professional level. We have Holocaust-related libraries, archives, testimonies, museums, memorials, commemorative events, books, journals, conferences, symposia, university chairs, scholars, teachers, writers, curricula and artists,” Marrus continued.
“To be sure, it remains to be seen what use we make of these tools. But so long as we care about how our world has come to be, and so long as we think about it rationally, we will ponder what has been bequeathed to us – not only by survivors but also by so many who have laboured to represent the Holocaust as faithfully as possible.”
Rabbi Adam Scheier, spiritual leader of the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, said that “our ability to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust and those who suffered and perished in it hinges on our ability to ritualize the memory.
“Although there are no surviving eyewitnesses to the revelation at Sinai or the Exodus from Egypt, both play a central role in how we think of ourselves as Jews. We achieve this not by simply telling and retelling, reading and rereading; rather, the ritualization of memory – the Passover seder, daily recitation of Shema, etc. – perpetuates the story, he said.
“Likewise, if we determine that the tragedy of the Holocaust – together with modern Jewry’s ability to rise from its ashes – is to be an essential component of Jewish identity, then introducing new rituals and adapting old rituals becomes essential to ensuring the story’s survival.
“Introducing a new ritual might involve establishing an interactive and educational seder to be observed on Yom Hashoah,” Rabbi Scheier continued. “Adapting an old ritual might be to add prayers of Holocaust-related lamentation on Tisha b’Av. Ritualizing moments of memory ensures that the tragic impact of the Holocaust is not exacerbated by the devastating influence of forgetfulness.” Yom Hashoah v’Hagvurah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, falls this year on April 19.
– With files from Carolyn Blackman