After over seventy years of proclaiming “never forget”– which goes hand in hand with ensuring that we stay true to “never again” — society is increasingly losing sight of that mantra, according to a survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day this past April and reported by the New York Times:
Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. Only 39 percent of Americans know that Hitler was democratically elected.
Despite the gaps in the respondents’ knowledge, the study found an overwhelming consensus — 93 percent — that all students should learn about the Holocaust at school. And Holocaust denial remains very rare in the United States, with 96 percent of respondents saying they believe the genocide happened.
“The issue is not that people deny the Holocaust; the issue is just that it’s receding from memory,” said Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which negotiates restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs. “People may not know the details themselves, but they still think it’s important. That is very heartening.”
This trend is commensurate with the rapid decline of living Holocaust survivors, who now number around 400,000, most of them in their eighties or nineties. As many Holocaust remembrance advocates note, the voices and personal stories of these victims are uniquely impact in a way that cannot be emulated by books, films, or exhibitions.
To that end, many museums and memorial are finding newer and more innovative ways of driving home the horror of this atrocity to future generations that will be far removed experientially and psychologically:
At the site of the Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs, the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation has been developing an interactive memorial plaza, scheduled to open in October. Visitors will use a new app that will, among other things, feature survivors’ recorded testimonies.
In one part of the plaza, train tracks that carried prisoners to the Treblinka death camp will be embedded in the pavement. When visitors step onto the tracks, the app, using geocaching technology, will pull up videos of Philadelphia residents “who were on those very trains that led to Treblinka,” said Eszter Kutas, the remembrance foundation’s acting director.
And at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, near Chicago, visitors can speak with one of seven holograms of survivors — a project also tested at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Drawing on recorded testimony, the holograms can answer questions in real time.
Visitors to the Illinois museum’s Take a Stand Center first watch a five-minute film in which a survivor introduces him- or herself. In one, Fritzie Fritzshall describes being taken to a ghetto at gunpoint during Passover, and from there to Auschwitz.
“I have so much more to tell you,” she says. “So please ask me questions.”
Then the hologram appears, “so real that our audience typically gasps when they see it,” said Susan L. Abrams, the museum’s chief executive.
“It really was as effective as hearing from a live survivor, and that surprised us,” Ms. Abrams said. “When you sit in this theater and the lights dim, everything else melts away. Our visitors truly believe that they are having this conversation with a survivor. I don’t think even we realized just how powerful it would be.”
One would hope that reading and learning about something so horrific would suffice, but at this point we should do whatever it takes to reach people. Whether that will ensure “never again” is another story.