BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT //
Jewish history of the last two millennia, from the time when Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of Rome, is practically a lesson in martyrism. It is a chronicle of tragedies, intolerance, forced eviction and genocide.
This is not to say that Jews alone have experienced such tragedies, but no other people – at least to my knowledge – were forced to become a wandering people like the Jews. And not only were we forced to move from most, if not all, countries in which we resided (including their own, Israel), but we were also not permitted to settle in other countries.
We, the Jews, who provided the foundation for most of the world’s faiths, became abandoned and despised by those whose faith rose out of Judaism.
It is a curious phenomenon that Jews were punished for having the temerity to advocate the principles of justice and peace (in my eyes, essential for a religion based on humanism and human morality), became the subject for hostility, were declared to be “unjust” and “immoral” and subjected to genocide.
What’s more, all nations that accepted Jews to live in their midst have prospered economically and intellectually, but – regardless of such benefits that they bestowed on their hosts – they were frequently forced to depart as though they themselves were the plague.
Either that or, as in the case of the Holocaust, they were the target of an extermination. All this taken into account, it is fitting and proper that we should not only remember the martyrdom of Jews but that we should also recognize their contributions to the development of any ethical and moral religion.
What It Is that We Should Remember
Along these lines, the United Nations has set aside Jan. 22 as Holocaust Memorial Day. The date marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a city that became the symbolic representative of the murder of millions of Jews in concentration camps by those who followed a mentally deranged leader who desired world domination.
I say, let us also designate that day as a memorial day for Jews’ contribution to the world of culture, the spirit of justice and a moral philosophy designed to advance human knowledge and the betterment of human life.
We have come to a point in history when most of the Holocaust witnesses are dying. This is, of course, a natural process, but keep in mind that shortly the world will be without witnesses to remind us of the inhumanity and atrocities that the collective id is capable of effecting upon life.
We must continue to remember the Holocaust as man’s capability to revert to an archaic state – governed by his base instinct of selfishness and leading to an abuse of power. The Shoah should be a constant reminder that, as noted psychoanalyst Erich Fromm cautioned, it is very easy to forget the principles of humanism, of justice and of freedom.
And going forward, we must be careful lest we make the memory of the Holocaust an empty symbol, like so many other memorial days: a trophy placed on the shelf to gather dust, brought down once a year for a meaningless ritual. Instead, we must actively and sincerely remember the past if we wish to improve our future – and especially if we wish to achieve a dream started by the sages and prophets of the same people who Hitler sought to destroy.
This dream is of universal peace, of a time when we turn our swords into plowshares and the use of guns will become merely an historical memory.
How Can a Dream Come True?
Human beings face enough challenges: we must solve problems of health and of adequate sustenance without adding problems caused by hatred and the creation of destructive forces like those experienced during the Holocaust.
We all seek a world of peace, a kind of world depicted in the legends of a Messianic age. This can be achieved by (in the words of Theodor Herzl, the great dreamer of a peaceful Israel): “Keeping the image of our dreams in our mind.”
But it can only become a reality if we but adhere to the principles of freedom and justice and the elimination of pain.
As a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, I must caution the world. If we wish to continue to exist as humans, we first must learn to act humanely and follow the dreams set forth by Jonah, Micah and Isaiah. Their teaching clearly cautions us that, for mankind to exist, we must adhere to the universal values of peace and justice.
I would like to thank the hard working staff of the two agencies in Atlanta – The Georgia Commission for the Holocaust and the Breman Museum – for their continued effort to teach the lessons of the Holocaust.
Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University, educational director of the Georgia Commission for the Holocaust and a Holocaust survivor.