by Gina Christian
Decades after millions of European Jews were systematically persecuted and murdered, “constant education” is needed to prevent the genocide of marginalized groups, said a local scholar.
Last week, the United Nations (UN) and its member states marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the Shoah — the preferred term for the killing of 6 million Jews during the Second World War by the Nazi regime.
The date of the annual Jan. 27 observance (which was inaugurated in 2005) recalls the 1945 Soviet liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazis’ largest concentration and death camp. Located in Poland, the site saw at least 1.1 million slain by asphyxiation with poison gas, shooting, starvation and disease. Prisoners (including some 232,000 children) were also routinely subjected to forced labor, sterilization and medical experimentation.
In total, the Shoah “wiped out two thirds of the European Jewish population,” said Philip Cunningham, professor of theology at Saint Joseph’s University and, along with fellow professor Adam Gregerman, director of that school’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations (IJCR).
Founded in 1967, the IJCR is the oldest university center of its kind in the U.S. created in response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for increased interfaith dialogue.
While “surely Jews will not forget the Shoah,” said Cunningham, “there is a danger that for non-Jews, including Christians, the memory of and challenges posed by the Shoah will fade.”
With the genocide’s remaining victims and witnesses passing away, he said, “the immediacy of young people being able to speak directly with survivors, rescuers or liberators is unavoidably being lost.”
As a result, said Cunningham, “the importance of recorded testimonies and the work of the descendants of eyewitnesses is therefore of greater importance as time passes.”
At his weekly general audience on Jan. 27, Pope Francis described such remembrance as “an expression of humanity” and “a sign of civilization.”
In 2016, Pope Francis became the third pontiff to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, now a memorial and museum. The pope met with camp survivors and prayed in the starvation cell that housed St. Maximilian Kolbe for two weeks prior to his death by lethal injection.
Sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau — along with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. – have for years provided extensive on-site and online resources documenting the Shoah.
Yet “it’s hard to know how to measure being ‘sufficiently educated’” about the genocide, particularly with regard to younger generations, said Cunningham.
“Surveys I have seen give inconsistent results, which is probably an indication that educational efforts about the Shoah must be sustained,” he said.
The term “Holocaust” itself (a Greek translation of the Hebrew word for burnt sacrifice) is “regularly and facilely applied to contemporary events or issues” in civic discourse, said Cunningham – a practice that “(obscures) the distinctive lessons of the Nazi genocide against Jews” while also contributing “to a generalized ‘Holocaust fatigue.’”
Instead, said Cunningham, the Shoah must be clearly recognized as “a racialist campaign to dehumanize and then exterminate Jews” along with “other marginalized groups,” among them Roma, persons with physical and intellectual disabilities, and those who experienced same-sex attraction.
That campaign began gradually, he stressed.
“The Shoah did not just happen overnight,” said Cunningham. “It was the culmination of an incremental process.”
As the Nazi party rose to power in post-World War I Germany, members “first polemicized against Jews as an identifiable group, accusing them of conspiring against German and Christian society,” he said.
Legalized discrimination against Jews soon followed, while those who attacked Jewish persons or property went unpunished.
“Eventually, (the Nazis) physically removed Jewish populations from society,” said Cunningham.
For that reason, he said, “the Shoah reminds us to be on the alert against any reappearance or normalization of such patterns today” – a sentiment echoed by Pope Francis in his Jan. 27 audience.
“Remembering … means being careful because these things could happen again, beginning with ideological proposals intended to save a people and ending by destroying a people and humanity,” said the pope, warning his listeners to discern “how this path of death, of extermination and brutality begins.”
At the same time, said Cunningham, “it is important for both Jews and Christians not to fall into the trap of thinking of Jews only as ‘perpetual victims.’”
Following the Second Vatican Council, he said, Jews and Catholics have experienced a “rapprochement,” especially in the U.S., that has enabled them “as friends and neighbors (to) appreciate each other as people, and not in terms of such stereotypes.”