Jan. 27 was chosen for International Holocaust Remembrance Day because it marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, which occurred on Jan. 27, 1945. According to a recent poll, 41 percent of Americans and 66 percent of millennials no longer know what Auschwitz was.
Why should they, or we, care about Auschwitz?
Oświęcim was a small town in southern Poland containing a few army barracks left over from World War I. Under German rule, those barracks became a concentration camp for members of the Polish underground and intelligentsia, and quickly grew to contain others.
The first group to arrive—728 Poles, including Catholic priests and Jews—did so by train. Many more would follow. That necessitated “technological innovation.”
The first crematorium was constructed during the summer of 1940. By spring of 1943, there were four crematoria being fed by eight gas chambers which could collectively process 4,400 victims per day. Even those who don’t know what Auschwitz was have probably heard that somewhere the Nazis designed gas chambers to look like shower rooms. Contrary to popular belief, neither water nor gas came out of the showerheads—the gas was dropped in through the roof.
Auschwitz was an industrial complex whose primary commodities were captivity, slave labor and murder.
It was the largest. It was the most efficient. It was the culmination of lessons learned.
Auschwitz was a netherworld where lawless terror, intimidation and brutality ruled. It personified the Nazi spirit. It was the archetype. It was constructed to prove that the unprecedented goal of exterminating an entire people was possible. It was a satanic reality conceived, enabled and realized by human beings.
While the evil they promulgated was anything but banal, many of those who made it possible were banal indeed. Without the active and ongoing contribution of architects, bureaucrats, army officers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen, there could be no Auschwitz. As Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi observed: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men.”
Auschwitz wields an inexorable hold on us to this day—and it’s a good thing it does. For at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel reminds us, “Not only man died, but also the idea of man. It was its own heart the world incinerated at Auschwitz.”
We should care about Auschwitz because as much as we may not want to, we must confront the depth of evil, malevolence and moral depravity humanity is capable of.
Yes it was long ago and far away—but not that long ago, and not that far away.
The United Nations designated Jan. 27 as the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. Rejecting any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution by consensus condemning “without reserve” all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, whenever they occur.
In honor of the day, last week saw over 50 international delegations descend upon Jerusalem for the largest gathering of world leaders in Israeli history. Many of them were present on Monday in Poland, at Auschwitz, for further commemorative activities and oaths of commitment to “the continued importance, 75 years after the Holocaust, of collective action against anti-Semitism and other forms of bias to ensure respect for the dignity and human rights of all people everywhere.”
That these events are taking place with the level of participation we have seen in recent days is almost incomprehensible. Beneath the specter of resurgent violent anti-Semitism around the world, this recognition and its attendant call to action is both timely and encouraging.
Let us not see Auschwitz as some silent memorial for inhuman crimes of a distant age. Let us remember what went on there. Let us decide to care about what happened there, because it is an indelible stain on all humanity. Let it lead us to renewed commitment to battle—in whatever way we can—those forces of evil running roughshod in the world, that we may redeem our collective humanity by “ensuring respect for the dignity and human rights of all people everywhere.”
Edward Jacobs is a partner in the conceptual design firm Berenbaum Jacobs Associates, specializing in the subjects of human rights and genocide. Jacobs was the concept and exhibition designer for the recently opened Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, as well as the The Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center at Cincinnati’s historic Union Terminal. He has authored 10 graphic novels on genocide, and has a featured chapter in the upcoming Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology on the Arts and Humanities.