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What we talk about when we talk about Auschwitz

Our bulwark against another Holocaust is our humanity toward all groups

January 27, 2015 2:00AM ET

The 70th anniversary of the liberation by the Red Army of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau is not simply a Jewish event. Even though most of its victims were Jewish, the meaning of the Holocaust goes far beyond the genocidal trauma inflicted on Europe’s Jews. Auschwitz symbolizes a dark moment in the history of the West in which the principles we accept as universal today almost perished along with Europe’s Jews. Absorbing the universal lessons of the Holocaust is vital if we are to prevent similar horrors in our own time, perpetrated against new victims.

Two out of three Jews in Europe were killed at the hands of the Nazis, so it should come as no surprise that many Jews still demand answers about how this could have happened and what can be done to ensure it will never recur.

Many in Israel accept the simple answers provided by an official narrative symbolized by the Israeli air force flying F-16s over Auschwitz. The Holocaust will not happen again, because we new Jews now have the state of Israel, with its formidable military power.

I’m not convinced this is the right response for the Jews, and it offers no answer to the universal question of how the Holocaust occurred in one of the most advanced societies of the industrialized West and how such abominations can be prevented.

I ask constantly myself, “If the answer lies in military security, then how many bombs, troops, aircraft and technologies of war are needed to nullify the risk?”

My answer is that force may be an answer to some other questions but not to this one.

A culture of human rights

The fate of the Jews incinerated in the Auschwitz crematoria resulted from an environment in which the universality of human rights and the sanctity of all human life had yet to be established.

The perpetrators of the Holocaust had a deep and profound contempt for these values that Europe today takes as its common heritage. The Nazis took advantage of a culture in which it was permissible to deny the humanity of those deemed “other.”

Western European powers had been guilty for decades of violently dehumanizing the peoples they colonized in Africa; during World War II, Nazi Germany brought the same barbarity to bear on Europe’s Jews — as well as the Roma, who, like Muslim immigrants, remain vulnerable to the contempt of the European mainstream. 

The true test of whether Europeans have learned the lessons of Auschwitz is not how philo-Semitic they have become but whether they advocate hostile attitudes to any racial, religious or ethnic group in their midst.

Our only reliable safeguard against states abandoning the norms of universal morality in the way Germany did during the Holocaust is the constant deepening of humanistic awareness and of the danger of dehumanizing the “other.”

Despite the alarming trends at work in a number of societies today, we are reassured by the constitutional and ethical safety nets — constructed, in many cases, mindful of the horrors of Auschwitz and the need to prevent any repetition — that are today part our collective international political consciousness.

It is the legacy of Auschwitz that anti-Semitism, while it persists in certain places around the world, is no longer tolerated in the democratic mainstream. Prejudice against Jews or denial of the horror they suffered in the Holocaust has become a disqualifier from the consensus of political life in the West. In France, for example, the efforts by the National Front to recast itself as part of the French political mainstream has involved party leader Marine Le Pen’s publicly rebuking the anti-Semitism of the party’s founder, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

But the true test of whether Europeans have learned the lessons of Auschwitz is not how philo-Semitic they have become but whether they advocate hostile attitudes to any racial, religious or ethnic group in their midst.

Our bulwarks against today’s attempts by neo-Nazis, Islamophobes and other ultranationalists to renew the spirit of Hitler are the democratic civilizations and international human rights culture we’ve built in the 70 years since Auschwitz was liberated. Wherever there’s a solid foundation of humanity, there is no chance of a new Holocaust; many battles remain to be fought, but the war has been won.

What we remember

My beloved and heroic father-in-law was a fighter in the French Resistance during World War II. On his return from the battlefield, he apprehended the miracle that not only had the Jewish people survived, but so had humanity itself.

He was inspired by the fact that despite the dark clouds of those frightening days, so many righteous people had put their lives on the line when they didn’t have to in order to save Jews. And in doing so, they kept the flame of humanity burning bright in Europe. They were not lunatics or saints; they were ordinary people moved by the basic values they shared with the rest of humanity to resist an evil whose success required their quiescence.

Ever since, he has devoted his long and blessed life to find and honor them or their descendants. The humanity kept alive by those who resisted Hitler’s evil designs needs constant nurturing — through legislation, education, civic awareness and a determined struggle against all forms of discrimination, oppression and injustice.

As we mark the liberation of Auschwitz, we are obliged remember that its overlords were the enemies not only of the Jews but also of the very principles of our common humanity. Keeping those universal principles at the center of our remembrance is critical. This is the lesson I recently took from the headline for a program in Amsterdam at Castrum Peregrini, the house of one of these silent heroes now dedicated to nurturing the values that unite us against racism and fascism: “We are what we remember.”

During his time in government in Israel, Avraham Burg served as speaker of the Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency. Today he is a writer and political activist in Israel. His books include “The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise from Its Ashes.”  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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