With each passing year, the Holocaust is becoming less familiar and less relevant to youth around the world. To some, it’s a confusing collection of dreadful details, one of many horrific periods in human history. To so many others, it is – sadly – completely devoid of meaning.
In recent weeks, the Claims Conference released data indicating that one third of Americans believe that only 2 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, a far cry from the actual figure of 6 million who were slaughtered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Additionally, more than 45% of the survey respondents were unable to name even one of the 40 Eastern European ghettos and concentration camps established by the Nazis during the Second World War. Among millennials, that number increases dramatically, with an incredible 66% of American young adults having no knowledge of Auschwitz whatsoever.
What this means is that for every passionate student of history who is carrying the torch of Holocaust memory, there are two for whom the Holocaust means nothing at all.
As we approach the 81st anniversary of the start of the Holocaust, the frightening truth is that there are only a handful of survivors remaining who are able to share their firsthand testimony with the next generation. Which begs the question: What will we do in just a few short years when there are no survivors left? How can we even begin to explain the horrors of the Holocaust to those who are unwilling to visit Auschwitz or even acknowledge its existence?
For more than eight decades, we have professed that the answer lies in the creation of a new generation of “ambassadors” dedicated to safeguarding the history of hate in order to promote tolerance, acceptance and inclusion. We have explained that by educating our youth and instilling them with a sense of responsibility to bear witness on behalf of the survivors, we could ensure that history would not repeat itself, that the truth would conquer the ignorance and fear at the heart of racism and intolerance.
But the rise in violent and public acts of anti-Semitism around the world over the last year, coupled with the troubling data compiled by the likes of the Claims Conference, make it clear that we must do more. It’s not enough to educate our youth about the destructive power of hatred. Rather, we must empower them to educate each other, to dig deep and help their fellow millennials comprehend and connect with the atrocities of the Holocaust at its very core.
It is for this reason that this year’s International March of the Living will host the first-ever ‘Emerging Leadership Conference’ in Krakow. Ahead of the march, hundreds of youth from around the world who have been impacted by anti-Semitism will work together to determine a new way forward. During the conference, 20 youth representatives – Jewish and non-Jewish – will sign an official declaration to launch the campaign, a rallying and defiant call to millennials around the world to commemorate the Holocaust and help put an end to anti-Semitism.
This conference represents the first step in transforming our youth from passengers on an educational journey to those capable of steering history in a new direction. But the conference is just the beginning.
In March, when the international media shared pictures of the anti-Semitic carnival float from the town of Aalst near Brussels featuring caricatures of Jews with crooked noses holding bags full of money, one couldn’t help but be reminded of the Nazi propaganda cartoons from the 1930s. While the tactics haven’t changed in 80 years, the delivery system has advanced dramatically. Thanks to social media, it is so much easier to pass off hateful opinion as fact and spread venomous anti-Semitic sentiment.
With a few clicks or swipes, one person’s ignorant, hate-filled tirade can travel around the world to infect countless unsuspecting victims. Within seconds, anti-Semitic rhetoric can reach more eyes and ears than the Nazi propaganda machine ever dreamed possible. It is for this reason that we will use the conference as a launchpad to harness these same tools for education and empowerment, combatting blatant anti-Semitism by spreading the truth and challenge all who dare defy it.
The youth leaders participating in the conference will heavily promote the findings of their international gathering with peers around the world via social media platforms under the hashtag #SayNoToAntisemitism, making it clear that the Holocaust was not just a moment in time or one of the many horrific periods in human history but the direct result of anti-Semitism that went unchecked.
According to the Claims Conference data, 58% of respondents believe that an event similar to the Holocaust could take place again. And judging by the seemingly endless public displays of unapologetic anti-Semitism around the globe, including the beating of a Judas effigy made to look like a caricature of an Orthodox Jew by school children in the Polish town of Pruchnik just last weekend, it feels like a not-so-distant possibility. That’s why it’s so crucial that we allow our newly-empowered millennials to lead this next chapter in the war on anti-Semitism.
Just like the brave young leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, our youth represent our best chance at combatting a much larger foe. They are smart, savvy, and skilled, with a profound knowledge of history, and a keen understanding of how to influence their peers. They navigate the modern world with ease and leverage every tool at their disposal to discredit lies and set the record straight. But most importantly, they are driven by a desire to heal the world, a sense of responsibility to humanity as a whole, and an understanding that they are our last line of defense against fear, hatred and prejudice. Wielding the powers of courage, selflessness, tolerance and truth, they are uniquely suited to lead and will “bear witness” in new and creative ways that will bring honor an peace to an entire generation of Holocaust survivors.
Dr. Shmuel Rosenman is the Co-Founder and Chairman of the International March of the Living, an immersive Holocaust education experience that brings individuals from around the world to Poland to explore the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hatred.