Washington Jewish Week: We must confront a culture of indifference

Recently I visited Babi Yar, the ravine outside Kiev where 33,771 Jews were killed during two days of slaughter in September 1941. All told, 100,000 people lost their lives in this notorious place, most of them Jews.
During my visit, I witnessed disconcerting scenes of indifference to this tragic history, including teenagers playing football in a ditch, literally running over the bones of the dead.

Too many are oblivious to history.

This collective amnesia is hardly new or surprising, but it points to a great danger as the world once again witnesses surging anti-Semitism and the ever-present curse of xenophobia.

At Babi Yar, the forgetfulness was encouraged by years of ruthless Soviet rule when even the word «Jew» was rarely uttered by an official propaganda machine that portrayed Soviet citizens, not Jews, as the primary victims.

Acknowledgment of the special tragedy of the Jewish people was rare. When mentioned at all, European Jewry was depicted as somehow responsible for its own destruction.

The occasional breach in the shameful wall of silence, such as the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem «Babi Yar» (which Dmitry Shostakovich set to music in his Thirteenth Symphony) felt like a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere poisoned by lies.

As a Jew growing up in the Soviet Union, I remember very clearly that Jews were not the only ones to sense this. Thinking people of all nationalities throughout the Eastern Bloc were ashamed of officialdom’s «lies through silence».

But times have changed. Now there is a monument in Babi Yar, and yearly services are held to pray for the victims. Meetings are held at the site, and the president and other members of the Ukrainian government have participated.

Still, the virus of forgetfulness eats at collective memory and undercuts the lessons of the Holocaust.

Holocaust education is critical, but its results are too often fleeting. Like so much of what is force-fed to students in school, information about those terrible years is quickly forgotten.

Genuine memory is an emotion, not just a collection of facts. People remember what they find interesting or what resonates on an emotional level. This confirms the idea that culture is that which remains in the consciousness once the facts have been forgotten.

Despite Holocaust education, memories of that tragedy and an understanding of its causes have failed to take root in Europe’s collective consciousness. People do not feel a personal or an emotional connection to the facts they learn in well-intentioned school programs.

The Holocaust is hardly the only example of historical forgetfulness or indifference to the suffering of others. We see the same apathy in response to the Armenian genocide of 1915 and to the all-too-frequent atrocities in today’s world.

Outside the Soviet Union and a few other countries with firsthand memories of the war, most young people and many who are not so young have no concept of even the broad dimensions of the conflict — such as the massive losses and critical role of the Soviet Union.

Is it any wonder they know even less of the suffering of a small European minority?

Jews are naturally hurt, offended, and sometimes frightened by this indifference and ignorance. That pain is compounded by the knowledge that the Holocaust is not merely a «Jewish issue», but one that concerns all of humanity. If its lessons are lost, the world will face new genocides, new horrors on a mass scale.

One of Francisco Goya’s best-known works is an etching titled «The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.» But there is also the sleep of memory, reflected in a society that has little use for the past, and in the boys playing football on the bones of the dead.

That loss of memory can prove deadly.

The need to instill patience and tolerance for others in young people is one of the most critical imperatives of this new century. If we fail, we are doomed to face recurrent, irresolvable conflicts as nationalities unavoidably come into even closer contact.

Bigotry, xenophobia and unrestrained national ambitions led to two world wars in the last century and produced the Holocaust and other genocides. Today’s world is more complex, but the same deadly strains of human emotion remain extant.

Therefore, it is vital that we continue to use the Holocaust as the most powerful example of the tragic consequences of unrestrained xenophobia and bigotry.

We must continue to remind people of the details of that terrible time and explain that genocide is the likely outcome when these feelings are not curbed through education and programs that teach tolerance.

The question remains: How can we do this in a way that will effectively touch people on an emotional level and not just feed them quickly forgotten facts?

Popular culture plays a role. Consider the impact of films such as Schindler’s List, The Pianist and Life Is Beautiful.

Founded earlier this year during the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, the World Holocaust Forum also participates in this process. The presidents of Israel and Poland expressed their willingness to become forum patrons. Leaders of Russia and Ukraine are expected to participate as well.

The forum will next meet in October 2006 to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the slaughter in Babi Yar.

Such meetings, with their delegations of heads of state and ministers, matter, but mostly as symbols of the political will of the international community to serve the cause of remembrance.

More important is the ongoing, painstaking work in the schools. One outstanding example is the European Education Program for Teachers on the Holocaust and its lessons, organized by the World Holocaust Forum.

We have to begin with an understanding of the reality we face: That forgetfulness and indifference to the suffering of others are part of human nature.

Our programs are not going to change human nature. Instead, we must find creative new ways to teach the lessons of the past and make compelling connections to present realities.

We must convince people that these horrors are not just facts in history texts, but things that can happen to us if we do not curb the scourges of nationalism, xenophobia and the desire to prove the «superiority» of one’s race.

The Holocaust remains the most graphic, powerful example of that failure of the human spirit. We owe it to the victims to help prevent new horrors.

The son of a Soviet soldier who served in World War II, Moshe Kantor chairs the board of governors of the European Jewish Congress.

Moshe Kantor
Washington Jewish Week