Audrey Gellman-Chomsky is a second year student in the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies program at the University of Haifa. She received her B.A. in Comparative Religion from Boston University in the spring of 2012. Before coming to Haifa she had the privilege of studying with some of the field’s leading scholars such as Steven Katz and Elie Wiesel. She has enjoyed interning through the Lipper program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry Division of Oral History at the Hebrew University, and in both the Pedagogic Center and Video Center at Yad Vashem. She currently works for the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies program as the student coordinator, and is writing her thesis, “A Comparative Analysis of the Discourse of the ‘Bystander’ in the United States and Israel.” Today she writes about how her experience in our MA program has influenced the way she observes and appreciates International Holocaust Remembrance Day:
As many of my past professors have said, the more I learn about the Holocaust the less I understand. Growing up in an American Jewish community it seemed obvious that caring about the Holocaust was mandatory, and that we would all do so in a respectful and meaningful way. Despite the fact that my public school had an excellent secular approach to Holocaust education, I always understood the Holocaust from a Jewish point of view. All of my grandparents were born in the United States, but I still saw myself as part of the Holocaust story. I felt that this had happened to my people, so it was my obligation to learn about it and value whatever lessons could come from the Holocaust.
In my junior year of college, I became a Lipper intern at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. This role brought me into classrooms across the Northeast as a guest speaker on the Holocaust. I was a Jewish girl, telling a Jewish museum’s narrative of the Holocaust, but I began to see the Holocaust through the non-Jewish eyes of the students in my audience. These stories, which I had always identified with as a Jew, could be meaningful to anyone from any background that cared about humanity.
By the time I began my degree in Haifa, I was sure that the Holocaust was more than just a Jewish story, but my experience in this MA in Holocaust Studies program proved that the Holocaust is too huge and complex for one narrative, or even two. So many different kinds of people from an entire continent were affected by this terrible piece of history in different ways over the span of many years. Memorializing the Holocaust with a symbol, prayer, poem or photo I had been familiar with couldn’t be all encompassing of the suffering in the Holocaust the way it had to be.
This is why I think it’s important the world remembers the Holocaust in different ways on different days throughout the year.
I was always familiar with Yom HaShoah, the Jewish and Israeli day of Holocaust remembrance and was established as early as 1953, following, the Jewish calendar. The day itself was picked to coincide with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but was later changed to be farther away from the start of Passover. It didn’t occur to me until I was studying in Haifa that this day of commemoration didn’t provide all people with equal opportunity to commemorate the Holocaust. Even within the Jewish community an emphasis on the Warsaw ghetto uprising, though symbolic for resistance and suffering everywhere, failed to represent millions of survivors who were never in Warsaw. On a personal level, I appreciate the opportunity to acknowledge the Holocaust and mourn the losses of millions of my people with my Jewish community. But professionally I can recognize that Yom HaShoah doesn’t provide enough of an opportunity for all of humanity to question how the Holocaust could have happened, mourned the millions who were murdered, and remind humanity to keep pursuing a world where such atrocities can’t occur.
Similarly to how the origin of Yom HaShoah is reflective of its audience, many countries have established their own Holocaust memorial days that correlate with meaningful days in their nation’s history. In March, Bulgaria commemorates the day the plan to deport their Jews was rejected. In April, Serbia commemorates prisoners’ attempt to escape the Ustaše-operated Jasenovac extermination camp in Croatia, and in Poland the country remembers the Holocaust on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Netherlands remembers the Holocaust in early May when they commemorate World War II and then celebrate their liberation. In July, France remembers the Holocaust on the anniversary of the day more than 13,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz from Paris, and in Romania, October marks the anniversary of transports of Romanian Jews to Transnistria. Each of these days exists as a means of connecting to the narrative appropriate for its audience.
January 27th is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as established by United Nations, and subsequently the European Union, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom. It is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the concentration camp many use as a symbol of the entire Holocaust. Just like Yom HaShoah and other national days of Holocaust commemoration, January 27th has its limitations. Despite its symbolism, Auschwitz does not encompass all of what we want to memorialize when thinking about the Holocaust. Some find it isolating by the way it defines who the victims of the Holocaust were, and some find it to be a day that emphasizes some perspectives over others.
Rather than focus on how inadequate all the different days of commemoration are, I want to emphasize how much of a triumph it is that there are so many ways in so many different places to commemorate something so awful. In a world with racism, Holocaust denial, and ongoing genocide, it is no small feat that so much of the world strives to commemorate the Holocaust in the most meaningful way they can. What we commemorate occurred too broadly for any one group or country to be able to accurately recognize in their national memorial day. Ultimately, these different days of commemoration are not conflicting, but complimentary, providing a diverse perspective on the horrors of the Holocaust.
Being a member of an international group of students really helped me to understand how limited my own perspective on the Holocaust is. Through courses about historiography, Nazi Germany, and collective memory I learned to recognize how my opinions and heritage influence my understanding of the Holocaust. I will always value my Jewish approach to memorializing the Holocaust, but I’ve come to appreciate International Holocaust Remembrance Day in a significant way.
Today, all of humanity is encouraged to remember the millions of victims that were murdered in the Holocaust. This day allows us to acknowledge an international consensus that the Holocaust happened, and that it was horrible. This day gives me hope that in the future we won’t wait until after genocide to become a global community capable of identifying what is right and wrong.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Day is the ultimate acknowledgement that the Holocaust is a story that can be meaningful to anyone from any background that cares about humanity. Each nation, community and individual may connect with Holocaust commemoration for different reasons, but today provides us all with an opportunity to commemorate together, and I think that is pretty powerful.
My experiences growing up in an American Jewish community, teaching underprivileged students, and becoming an international student of Holocaust studies have shaped the way I understand and relate to Holocaust commemoration. My experience in the Weiss-Livnat MA in Holocaust Studies Program hasn’t just shaped the way I approach my research, it allowed me to understand collective memory and International Holocaust Remembrance Day differently.
On January 27th, 2014, I am confident that as I observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day I am also contributing to the field of Holocaust Studies, and helping others think innovatively about the Holocaust and what it means in our world today.