Carol Smaldino
Jan 27 · 6 min read

Holocaust Remembrance Day: Protesting the Invasion of Political Motives

Part of any important remembrance is to feel combinations of sadness and celebration, depending on the type of event or period at hand. January 27th is the day designated by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The intention is to remember as in keeping the memories alive and to use this process to help prevent genocides in the future.

The day is marked in Israel by many thousands of people gathering to pay tribute. Some of those people are Holocaust survivors themselves. Some are relatives of survivors. And some, in various parts of the globe, are relatives or concerned citizens who want to pay tribute. The tribute is a ritual of expressing honor and respect, and part of it is the vow that something as horrific as the Holocaust might never happen again.

This year, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is also a mish mosh of political leaders who seem to be lobbying for who was the good guy in ending the war (WWII) and who was the bad guy as goes the accusation of Poland starting the war to begin with. Yes, there have been apologies, by heads of state of Germany and of Holland, that allow the rest of us to understand how in some nations there was continual hatred and prejudice against Jews, as for instance in Amsterdam where Jews in concentration camps came back to taxes having been levied against them during their “stay” in the camps.

And there is the Saudi crown prince in Jerusalem, and Mike Pence hating Iran and warning the world against that country. And yes, Iran’s public policy has been to deny the Holocaust existed, but at the same time we have neo-Nazis doing the same thing. We have hatred rising and leaders such as Trump heralding the newer ages where immigrants will be kept out as bad and unruly and deficient. This is not so unlike the methodology and style of Hitler as he pledged racial uniformity.

As I have been reading some more about Poland’s history of anti-Semitism before, during and after WWII, I have begun to read more deeply about Stalin and what seem to be the genocides perpetrated in Russia and the later Soviet Union. My sense is that it is one thing to apologize for actions that took place during the Second World War and another thing to establish real committees to understand and interrupt the causes so in fact the same things do not have to repeat themselves.

Then there are Russia and Poland, at odds about their reputations, something that seems to me a contest lacking in real exploration of the roles of both nations in enabling and committing acts of hatred towards Jews. This is merely another attempt to organize a game of cowboys and Indians — where the Indians were always the bad guys. There was anti-Semitism in Poland before and after the War, in fact for centuries. And those of us whose families fled Eastern Europe, know too well about the pogroms in Poland and in Russia and in Ukraine where soldiers — as one example — used to go to Easter Mass, only to get incited and to drink enough alcohol to induce them to move in on Jewish communities (or ghettoes) to kill some of the people there.

The question is, at least to me: is any major government interested in how much present governments in the world and groups of people of one race or another are bound by hatred towards people who are used to be demonized? There is no shortage of countries where hatred is the order of the day. Looking at the US as one example, how can we possibly try to understand the infestation of hatred, racism, poverty and dehumanization in our own land — if there is no attempt in our leadership to help us talk with each other with the intention to gain consensus and compromise? If there is no motivation to seek the truth of given disagreements and dissensions and the only motivation is the thirst for power at any price, the whole of Holocaust Remembrance Day is a farce, not for those whose lives were crushed and those who survived them, but for the rest of the world — for the people for whom this is fanfare but no urgency for change.

Certain countries, including the US and Russia, are not all that big on any kind of self-reflection that leads not only to apology, but also to humility. Putin and Trump are bigger on the grander version and vision of providing their supporters with a self-image based on pride and superiority. And exceptionalism is just a wee bit dated for getting to the truth that is usually way more complex than meets the eye. This includes the Holocaust where America turned many ships containing Jewish refugees away even when our own government knew the horrendous truth of what was going on in the concentration camps.

It is not uncommon that after brutal and dark periods such as those that contain the Holocaust, slavery, military torture, genocides of any kind, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there can occur a psychic numbing. This can render us immune to the very alarm we need should the aspects of a Nazi regime, for example, start to become possible once again in our present or our future.

The chanting of “Never Again”, by any individual or group that swears up and down to resist at any cost becoming immune in this way, does not begin to be enough. Knowing history so as not to repeat it includes the emotional depth that comes with sorrow, shame, regret, grief, even despair. It means going deep into the caves where this kind of emotional memory and knowledge exist, without looking immediately for the others on whom to place blame.

If our memories are not accompanied by emotional recognition of the parts inside of us that can be cruel, let’s say, we may deny our own tendencies to get accustomed to a horribly destructive atmosphere in our own lands. What we cannot admit to as our own emotions, we project onto others. We find people to hate and from whom to detach, and then we don’t care what happens to them.

We don’t have a Nazi regime in America. However we do have an atmosphere in which more and more facts are not sought after. Facts, that can be inconvenient for any of us who want the truth, can disturb our equilibrium or our assumptions that we are in the right. The goal, in a society so polarized that making decisions of the greatest magnitude, becomes more of a sport with hate as its banner than a matter of sober and thoughtful processes.

Hitler did not become popular overnight. He sold a populace on hate and extermination of the Jews and other minorities considered a racial and moral threat, by subtle and insistent forms of propaganda. We are all vulnerable to this kind of propaganda, particularly when we are not used to or helped to own all of our emotions so we can resist blaming others for the parts inside us that scare or disgust us.

We may be tempted to parry around the terms of democracy, freedom and heroism, congratulating ourselves on how far we have come. If we are not cautious, though, we can use either Holocaust Remembrance Day or any other remembrance (such as Martin Luther King Remembrance Day for example) as an occasion for self-congratulation.

Similarly according to our odes to ourselves, Hitler was and can be no more. He is a thing, an aberration of the past. But mindfulness isn’t what it purports to be unless it is digested, metabolized and not a set of hypnotic phrases that are turned to slogans that make us feel good.

We need this Remembrance Day, not only to honor the victims of the Holocaust but also to penetrate the current signs of potential similarities to a brutal and sadistic past where humanity was lost. This is no small matter for us in today’s world, at home, right here, for all of us.