It takes an inordinate amount of courage to reveal one’s innermost feelings, fears and traumas before complete strangers. When Holocaust survivors share their personal life stories, they are creating an intimacy with their listeners – enabling us to become witnesses to their experiences during the darkest chapter in human history. But that is not all: They stand before us resilient and brave – exemplifying their own resilience and innate determination to survive, as well as that of the entire Jewish people.
As a Jew and Israeli and as Chairman of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, I am in awe of the remarkable contributions of these survivors to the State of Israel and our modern global society. Their bravery and will to survive have strengthened Israel from the fateful time prior to its establishment and onward over the entire 75 years of its existence.
These survivors, though scarred by the horrors they endured, were characterized by an undaunted spirit that would forever shape the nation they helped build. They brought with them a deep appreciation and thirst for freedom and an unwavering commitment to the preservation of Jewish identity and culture. Many of them became leaders in academia, arts, religious affairs, politics and industry, contributing to the rapid development and progress of our young nation.
Yet one day, in the not-too-distant future, there will be no more living survivors. All that will remain are their testimonies, their recorded and written voices telling their stories on their behalf. The question looms before us: How can we ensure their memory will not fade away? How will we connect the younger generations with their personal histories and stories? How will we continue to carry the torch of remembrance without the presence of living witnesses?
The ongoing relevance of Holocaust remembrance
Through commemorative events, educational programs and the preservation of Holocaust-related documentation, artifacts and artwork, Yad Vashem has played a pivotal role in fostering Holocaust remembrance in Israeli society and worldwide. By sharing the stories of survivors, we ensure that the lessons learned from the Shoah remain relevant to future generations. We must remember not only the atrocities committed but also the resilience, courage and hope shown by those who survived.
Preserving the memory of the six million
Within the immense tragedy of the Holocaust lies the heartbreaking reality that some six million Jewish lives were abruptly and barbarously extinguished, their stories left untold and potential unrealized. While Holocaust survivors have provided invaluable testimonies and memoirs, we must also recognize the importance of preserving the memory and legacy of those who were murdered.
Yad Vashem, with its sacred mission, utilizes the remnants of their lives to help ensure that their identities and existence are forever ingrained in the consciousness of humanity. Through such tangible connections to the past, which testify to the rich tapestry of Jewish existence that was destroyed, we strive to reveal the depth of the human tragedy, reminding the world that the Holocaust was not merely an abstract concept but a profound rupture in the fabric of humanity.
The battle against denial, distortion and trivialization
Shoah remembrance is not only a tribute to the millions of innocent Jewish lives lost but is also a commitment to combating antisemitism, racism and hatred. The passing of the Holocaust survivor generation is liable to be the “happy hour” for Holocaust distortionists and may lead to increased trivialization of the Holocaust. The firsthand accounts of the survivors – their very presence – have served as the most powerful and credible voice in countering those who seek to deny or distort the historical reality of the Holocaust.
Now it has become a race against the clock in order to ensure that their stories are preserved, disseminated and entrusted to future generations. At Yad Vashem, we recognize these challenges and are committed to meeting them. Yad Vashem continues to work tirelessly to enhance its archival collections, curate exhibitions and provide comprehensive educational resources to equip educators, researchers and the general public with accurate historical knowledge and insights. By preserving and disseminating authentic historical records and evidence, we can fortify the foundation of truth and empower future generations to counter Holocaust denial and distortion effectively.
Moreover, Yad Vashem is actively engaging with technology and digital platforms to ensure that the voices of victims, the stories of the survivors and the evidence of the Holocaust are accessible and widely available. Digital initiatives, online exhibits and virtual reality experiences are just some of the ways we are adapting to the changing landscape of Holocaust remembrance and education, to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust remains alive and resilient.
The diminishment of the survivor generation underscores our collective opportunity to uphold their legacy. Thus, it is imperative that we remain vigilant, continuing to expose and challenge Holocaust denial, distortion, and trivialization wherever and whenever they appear. Recently, Yad Vashem displayed its Book of Names at the United Nations in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is an impressive and unparalleled installation, containing the names of some 4,800,000 murdered Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The Book of Names contains basic biographical information and restores the victims’ personal identities. However, our mission to restore all six million victims is not yet complete.
We aim to uncover every missing name until the very last victim. Accordingly, we are redoubling our efforts to obtain clues to the identities of those still missing from the Book of Names. Any information, recollection or item, no matter how seemingly insignificant, may prove meaningful when combined with data contained in Yad Vashem’s vast archives. We are in a race against time to find the names and details of the missing 1.2 million victims.
Through the gathering of family stories, artifacts and documents, you can become an active emissary of memory. Each item adds a crucial element to the puzzle of the past. Each story helps ensure that the voices of the past will not be silenced.
Together, let us carry the torch of remembrance, never forgetting the atrocities committed and vowing to build a world where such horrors are never repeated. In doing so, we shall honor the memory of the survivors, the millions of Jews who were murdered and ensure that stories of the victims remain etched in the hearts and minds of future generations.
The writer is the chairman of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem. He previously served as Israel’s consul-general in New York.