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Op-Ed: 70 years after Auschwitz, what have we learned?

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In an Op-Ed for The Guardian published the day before Holocaust Memorial Day, the Chief Rabbi contemplates the range of responses displayed immediately after the Holocaust – from stunned disbelief, to great academic interest and even indifference – and declares that education is imperative to preventing future genocides.

‘In the 70 years since the trauma of Auschwitz, what have we learned?’

“Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz–Birkenau. All these years after the uncovering of the greatest crime in human history, it seems that the world has not yet recovered from the shock.

Ethics, politics and psychology are all far more difficult to understand now that we know the depths to which human nature can sink. The discovery of the crimes of Nazism shone a searing arc-light on the brutality of the ideologues who saw themselves as supermen, above any moral restraint. The glare of that appalling truth caused many to hide from it and led some to descend into the doublethink of denial.

The reactions of those who discovered Auschwitz, the unfortunate soldiers who were first on the scene, are telling. Some kept quiet, and others couldn’t. Some were too traumatised by what they saw to share the experience. Others took photographs and passed them on to the world.

‘The discovery of the crimes of Nazism shone a searing arc-light on the brutality of the ideologues who saw themselves as supermen’

Then journalists, investigators, prosecutors, researchers, historians, theorists, documentary film-makers and generations of others took their turn, trying to find an appropriate response to the testimony of the survivors and the evidence of gas chambers, crematoriums, barracks for slaves, medical experiments and mass graves.

Chillingly, by January 1945 some newspaper readers were already inured to the details emerging from Auschwitz since similar horrors had already been discovered at Majdanek in July 1944. It was no longer news.

We now know that the survivors of extreme distress and trauma tend to suffer subsequently from nightmares and flashbacks, and from compassion fatigue and guilt.

Tragically, the world’s nightmares following the discovery of the Holocaust have included repeated wars and the continued threat of global nuclear, chemical and biological catastrophe. We have seen the spread of absolutisms no less aggressive than the Third Reich, such as jihadi ideologies, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocides committed by Serbs against Bosnians, by the Hutu against the Tutsi in Rwanda, by the Khmer Rouge against 1.7 million Cambodians and by the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed against non-Arabs in Darfur.

‘We have seen the spread of absolutisms no less aggressive than the Third Reich’

Many instances of bad judgment, self-delusion and moral cowardice in postwar politics may be rooted in the inability of national leaders and transnational institutions to cope with the lessons that should have been learned from the Holocaust.

In championing the oppressed, deterring aggression, curbing the excesses of despots, challenging the victimisation of scapegoats, tackling poverty or preventing genocide, the international community still has a long way to go.

The responsibility for Holocaust education is ours. As the number of living witnesses dwindles, we have a sacred task: children today will be the grandparents and great-grandparents of the future. We want them to continue telling this important story to ensure that nothing similar will ever happen again.

Undoubtedly, the primary victims of the Final Solution were the Jewish people. To say that is neither to marginalise nor disrespect the appalling sufferings of Roma, disabled, homosexual or politically dissident victims of the Nazi war machine. Even those not marked out as the principal targets of Nazism suffered terribly. The scars of the Third Reich’s victims and of their families lasted for decades and persist today. It is important to acknowledge that the compatriots of Jewish victims suffered deeply, and to remember with awe and gratitude the sacrifices made by those who fought Nazism. The nations that lost millions of innocent citizens (including 1.5 million children in the Holocaust and many others as victims of the war) were permanently damaged.

Last week Theresa May warned that “without its Jews, Britain would not be Britain” echoing a statement by the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, regarding France and its Jews. One third of world Jewry was exterminated in the Holocaust. Without the presence and participation of those Jews, Europe irrevocably lost a crucial and invaluable element of its identity.

For most Jews, wherever they may choose to live in the world, the restoration of the Jewish nation to its ancestral homeland in Israel is the one redemptive spark to emerge from the ashes of the Holocaust. The lives of individuals could not be restored, nor in many cases could the broken be fully healed. But from the valley of dry bones a new hope arose, animating an entire nation to arise and rebuild. For many Jews over the course of the 70 years since the trauma of Auschwitz, the most effective therapy has been to feed and nurture that hope.”