Jan. 27 is the Holocaust Day of Remembrance in 12 countries in Europe, including Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Greece and others. It’s the date of the liberation of the Birkenau-Auschwitz death camp in Poland by Russian troops in 1945. Other countries, including the United States, commemorate the Holocaust on different dates, but in 2002, the Council of Europe selected this date for its members. The Council of Europe is a humanitarian agency dedicated to upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe; it was founded in 1949 and comprises 47 countries; it is distinct from the 28-member European Union. The United Nations has also adopted Jan. 27 as its day of Holocaust remembrance.
From 1945, when the enormity of the Nazi denial of basic humanity to Jews became fully known, the Holocaust has become the international symbol of the degeneration of human thought and behavior to a level of debasement previously unimaginable in the modern era. In this, Europe’s Jews gave a precious gift to humankind: the personal and collective example of where as human beings we cannot go. It was a gift unintended, but no less personal or precious. Moreover, it is a gift Jews continue to give by testifying to what was done to them because of their identity as Jews, and by continuing to call us to remember what we as humans are capable of, but cannot allow ourselves to justify.
There is more to be learned from the Holocaust by putting it into historical perspective. It is true that there were mass annihilations previously in history. But it is not clear that ever before were six million put to death solely because of their identity as a people, rather than because they held territory someone else wanted, or clung to a particular ideology. Jewishness is a combination of ethnicity, religion, culture and nationhood that is distinct among the world’s peoples. By the middle of the 20th century, it was thought in many circles that mass exterminations were a thing of the distant past, that civilization and humanity would no longer tolerate such levels of inhumanity. The revelation of the Nazi Holocaust shocked modern sensibilities. The murder of one and a half million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, and the murder of 500,000 Indonesians in 1965-66, and the murder of 500,000 in Rwanda in 1994 are condemned in the terms similar to the Holocaust, now properly labeled genocide.
Only in the last decade has the magnitude of the deliberate killing of Jews, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Russians, Poles, Kazakhs, Czechs and many other ethnic groups by the Soviets after 1932, and later the Germans, come to be fully appreciated in the West. The Yale historian Timothy Snyder calculates that the number of premeditated deaths in the area between the Oder-Neisse and the Dnieper, and between the Baltic and Black Seas between 1932 and 1945, was more than 14 million.
It was heartening recently when Republican House members stripped Iowa Congressman Steven King of his committee assignments after reviewing his unapologetic advocacy of white supremacy and white nationalism. “What is wrong with these terms,” King unconscionably wondered. He apparently is blind to where these terms and the beliefs behind them lead. The Ku Klux Klan attacked not only African-Americans, but also Jews, homosexuals and anyone else whom they viewed as non-conformist. James Fields was convicted of purposefully driving his car into protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, and other white nationalists have singled out Jews as well as African-Americans as targets of their corrupt hatred.
The list of Jews who have helped build Alaska and contributed to its character is long and ancient, beginning with people such as Anchorage’s first mayor, Leopold David; Zach Loussac, who donated his estate to begin what became the Rasmuson Foundation; Barney Gottstein, who helped regularize retail food distribution and make consumables more affordable, and many, many others. Anchorage’s two vigorous Jewish congregations – the Lubavitch Jewish Center, headed by Rabbi Yosef Greenberg and Congregation Beth Shalom, led by Rabbi Michael Oblath – continue to vitalize and humanize our lives. We honor their humanity, and our own, in remembering the meaning of the Holocaust.
Steve Haycox is a historian, author and emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.