This year marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration camp. In honor of its liberation, Jan. 27 has historically served as International Holocaust Memorial Day. On that day this year, the BBC’s Big Question segment posed the following: “Is the time coming to lay the Holocaust to rest?”
I was alarmed to hear this. On a visit to Poland, I personally saw the horrors that were once Auschwitz-Birkenau along with other concentration camps. I grew up with the stories of survivors and was continuously reminded that we must not forget, especially since we are members of the last generation that will personally hear survivors’ stories. Most importantly, I learned that remembering is necessary to ensure that anything like the Holocaust cannot and will not ever happen again. This segment on the BBC, however, made me realize that while I was taught about the Holocaust in a proactive sense, many others may have learned about it as a historical event that only pertains to the past.
This train of thought had me contemplating what it would really mean to lay any historical tragedy to rest. Perhaps it would entail moving on from the event and no longer discussing or commemorating it in an official setting. When it comes to the Holocaust, it is troublingly already the case that educational efforts are absent in some parts of the world. According to an international report by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, for example, this is true in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, New Zealand, Iceland, and many other countries.
Some might argue that by now it is time to forgive and cautiously forget — perhaps to ensure that the Holocaust and other historical tragedies do not distract the public from current atrocities. But this is exactly why these historical tragedies should never be laid to rest. With the massive influx of information in today’s culture, people’s attention spans are short-lived and inevitably jump from one outrage to another. It becomes difficult to process all of the information available, let alone analyze and respond to each event. But focusing on history together with current events creates a lens through which we can process what is going on around us both locally and globally. This is why the past, rather than distracting us from the present, gives us a means through which to both understand what is happening in our world today and to actively affect it.
Why, then, is history class not enough? Why should society bother with actively commemorating the past through international days of commemoration, ceremonies, and projects? Most educational researchers agree that the best way to both learn and remember is by combining “seeing, doing, and discussing.” It is the discussion of the connection between past, present, and future that will allow us to remember and apply history to our daily lives. It is seeing our government officials and local leaders actively participating in ceremonies that will set an example. And it is doing projects in memory of such tragedies that will help us develop a society that is conscious of what is at stake when some do not respect the rights of others to exist. The truth is that in order to ensure that our history has a continual impact on our actions and decision-making processes, we can never allow the past to be laid to rest.
Today, as news spreads through social media and the Internet, more and more voices can be heard and acknowledged. People can be informed, outraged, and then triggered to respond to tragedies that happen throughout the world. All of this means that there is greater accessibility to lessons about developing our own societies and ways of life. Perhaps growth can accelerate, but this won’t be possible without active commemoration. If we just “lay things to rest,” the passage of time and overload of information may cause people to become desensitized to the horrors that have transpired in our past. They may no longer be able to stand up and prevent the same mistakes from happening again. If something as monumental as the Holocaust — the largest genocide of the 20th century, perpetrated by the leader of a nation that was viewed as the center of culture and advancement — can be laid to rest, what are the implications for smaller-scaled but deeply important events such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre?
After all, as George Santayanna famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Suri Bandler is a member of the Class of 2017.