Not so long ago, stories about the Holocaust had context.
If a survivor told a story, much of the audience would know what she was talking about. The survivor could describe her experiences and the listeners would pick up on her references. The assumptions, the technology, the movie stars, the music that played in the background — all that would combine to provide listeners with background clues to time, place, social class, and all sorts of other intangibles that make up a story.
But now that’s increasingly rare. Not only are we facing “diminishing numbers of survivors,” Edna Friedberg said, we are also confronting a similar decline in “eyewitnesses. And by that I mean people for whom this period was their life stories. Not just black-and-white photos.”
That includes “soldiers who fought in World War II, and people who were on the American home front. People who watched newsreels in the theaters before the main show started. People for whom the war was current events.”
Dr. Friedberg will talk about “how our approach to Holocaust memory and education has evolved over time, and especially in this moment” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. (See below for details.)
Dr. Friedberg, for whom the subject holds both academic and personal meaning — she’s the granddaughter of survivors — is a historian who works for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Her concern about the way the Holocaust is understood and remembered — and the way that the generations born after the camps were liberated use the lessons they can take from it to battle hatred — is based not only on “the distance in time from the watershed events, but also a decrease in historical literacy more generally,” she said.
Specifically, the risks posed by the diminution of memory are based on the human tendency to fill harder-to-understand gray spaces with sharp blacks and whites, particularly if more complex information isn’t readily available. “Do people have even the basic vocabulary or chronology to understand the nuances of this very complex history?” Dr. Friedberg asked. “Do they understand why it’s important?
“When you know it, you look at the whole range of contemporary questions in society in a different way.”
This is not to say that some questions aren’t straightforward, she continued. “I am not talking about the obvious pressing social issues, like racism and anti-Semitism, but about questions on such issues as medical ethics, corporate responsibility, the chain of command in military settings, how to handle asylum claims. All of these very thorny societal challenges can be seen in a different way when they are viewed through the prism of failure from the Holocaust era.”
There are many lessons to be learned from the failures that led to the evils of the Holocaust, and the museum works to teach them. “For example, my colleagues at the museum and I have been working with law enforcement professionals for many years,” Dr. Friedberg said. “Every single new FBI agent, every new recruit comes through the training.”
One of the many things they learn is how institutionalized hatred starts. They learn that “the Holocaust was not implemented in an environment of war. It began with years and years of legal measures, where persecution and discrimination were government policy.” The way to dehumanize a group is a little bit at a time.
As the Holocaust recedes into memory, though, it can be used as a teaching device in a new way. “When you talk about a historical event that for most people feels distant — perhaps even comfortably distant — it can be a side door into conversations to which people otherwise might be resistant,” Dr. Friedberg said.
“For years we have done training with local police forces and with chiefs of police from major metropolitan areas across the country,” she continued. “We will talk with them about the kinds of factors and motives that influenced the police in Nazi Germany to be complicit with discriminatory laws. For example, a police officer might not have been motivated solely — or even at all — by anti-Semitism, but he might have welcomed policies that made it easier for him to do his job. For example, the ability to hold a suspect for longer, even without evidence or a charge.”
In Nazi Germany, “very human and relatable desires” — ambition, self-protection, laziness, greed, or a combination of them — also played into the continued dehumanization of an already dehumanized group. “When German law prohibited Jewish doctors from treating Aryan patients, that opened up professional avenues for those doctors’ colleagues and competitors,” Dr. Friedberg said. “They didn’t have to be motivated by hatred. They might have had career aspirations.”
What that means is that not everyone complicit in the Holocaust was evil, even though their actions were.
“Most of us have felt that it is easier to think about the Holocaust as perpetrated either by monsters or by lockstep ideologues, but in fact when you delve into the specifics of the documents and case studies, you see that the people involved are all too familiar,” she said.
As the Holocaust’s victims become less present, “there are two factors I see at play now in terms of what has been termed Holocaust fatigue,” the reluctance to talk about the Shoah, Dr. Friedberg said. “One is that people are just tired of hearing about it.”
The other factor “that I see among some Jews is almost an embarrassment, in that if they talk about the Holocaust, they feel that they are being too parochial, too self-centered. There have been so many tragedies over time,” so why focus on this one?
There are many reasons to keep that focus, Dr. Friedberg said. “One reason is that we have the evidence.
“To my knowledge, the Holocaust was the best-documented crime in human history, and the vast majority of the evidence was left to us by the perpetrators themselves. The opportunity to study this cataclysm from so many different perspectives is unmatched. And it allows us to explore the fragility of democracy, our social ties, and our ethics in ways that few other historical events allow us to do.”
That’s why we study history, she said. “If history has no relevance to today, why would we study it, other than to pay tribute?” But when we study history, we have to do so carefully. The relevance must be real. We should not wrench the historical record to serve our needs; instead, we should study the shape of history and draw conclusions from the forms that we see.
“I reject overly simplistic analogies that strip out the specifics from both the past and the present, which is what happens when we resort to black-and-white comparisons,” she said. “We also rob ourselves of the ability to have substantive policy discussions.”
Although we live in a fraught political environment, we have to be careful; name-calling does not replace careful study, and obvious analogies are too simplistic to be useful.
“When you do that, everything becomes flattened,” Dr. Friedberg said. “You are evil or you are good. That doesn’t actually achieve anything except to shut down discussion. So I do reject calling political opponents Nazis. It doesn’t get us anywhere — and it is disrespectful to the victims of the actual Nazis.”
She has learned that although it can be extraordinarily painful to study the Holocaust, to read about the very worst things people can do to other people, to have to study human degradation and evil, she also can unearth example after example of people risking and sometimes even sacrificing themselves to do good. Not only does the Holocaust teach us about human depravity, it also teaches us about human decency and acts of selfless heroism.
There are so many reasons to study the Holocaust. Another is “that it is a cautionary tale of how society can fall apart,” she continued. “We see how sectors of society that should protect our rights can be coopted into complicity.
“But I do not believe that the United States today is Germany in 1938.”
“One mistake that I think people make is that they misinterpret the rejection of simplistic analogies as an invalidation of pain and suffering today. I do not believe in the Olympics of suffering.”
Instead, “I believe in being specific,” Dr. Friedberg said. And she does not believe in wielding the Holocaust as a weapon.
“If I don’t want the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to be exploited in the service of causes with which I disagree, I must be consistent,” she said. “I do not have the right to exploit it in causes that I do care about.”
Holocaust memory “is not the domain of the political left or the right. You can come up with sloppy or disrespectful Holocaust analogies in support of animal rights, immigrants, gun rights. It is easy. It is the shorthand.” What those causes deserve is thoroughly worked out, reasoned-through arguments, and what the victims of the Holocaust deserve is for their stories to be remembered with specificity. That’s how we can learn to keep it from happening again.
Who: Dr. Edna Friedberg of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
What: Will talk about “Holocaust Memory in a Challenging World”
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Road, Tenafly
When: On Wednesday, March 25, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.
How much: $8 for JCC and Holocaust Memorial Museum members;
$10 for everyone else
For information or reservations: Call the JCC at (201) 408-1456
What else: There’s a wine and cheese reception