Why the Holocaust Still Matters Today

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One of the perks of being an educator at Holocaust Museum Houston is that thousands of students are touched by the work that we do, and the lessons we teach, each year. One of the downsides is that we only have a short time, with large groups of students, to convey the fundamental importance of this history, and make sure that every student in the room is impacted by what they have learned.

Unfortunately, perhaps, we do hear all too often from students—as I am sure most history teachers do, that the Holocaust was a long time ago, and it doesn’t matter anymore. Or we hear, “I am not Jewish, so this does matter to me.” And we even have some young people say to us, “This is not my history or my people’s history, so I don’t care.” How wrong they are. History is important because of the roots that it created in societies all over the world. History shows us the paths to new languages, new geographical discoveries, and amendments to government. History also shares with us deeply important lessons that need to be heard and remembered by every single living person.

The lessons of the Holocaust can be applied universally. This is not just a conversation about the history of the Jewish people, or the history of the Roma people in Germany during World War II. This is not even necessarily a story about World War II. The Holocaust is a deeply personal story about the effect that hatred and prejudice can have on a community. It is a story about millions of people who refused to use their voice to help others, and because of that refusal, millions of people lost their lives for no other reason than the belief that they were an inferior people. Are there any other historical events where we see hatred and prejudice impact communities? Are there current events in the world that share the experience of an apathetic population of people, determined to not get involved? Determined to remain “neutral?” Elie Wiesel once said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

One of the key experiences shared by victims of the Holocaust, as well as other genocides and acts of hatred, is the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanize them. Dehumanization is the removal of human dignity, human rights, humanity in its entirety. Dehumanization is key to getting ordinary people to commit acts of violence and mass murder against their community members. This lesson is not exclusive to the Holocaust. Dehumanization, facilitated by the Nuremberg and Berlin Laws, in the Holocaust are just acts of legalized discrimination. In Rwanda, the Hutus called the Tutsis cockroaches and used the media to spread hate speech inspiring violent acts by the community. In Cambodia, people had their autonomy removed by the Khmer Rouge and were placed into a completely new society based on their designated trustworthiness. People being assigned uniforms, numbers, having their heads shaved, and not being allowed to speak their native languages, practice their cultural traditions, or honor their religious beliefs all play into dehumanization. We see dehumanization everywhere.

The Holocaust matters to us because it is one of the most, if not the most, extensively documented instance of atrocity, hatred, dehumanization, and apathy in world history. The Holocaust also matters because as it was happening, the world stood by and watched—not just Germans, not just Europeans—the world. Today, we use the Holocaust to remember that we, as world citizens, can and must do better.