Recently in South Carolina and around the world, events were held to observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day. January 27 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. The Holocaust killed an estimated six million European Jews as well as many other victims of the Nazis, including Soviet prisoners of war, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, the infirm and more.
One of the survivors of Auschwitz was the late teacher, author and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. His son Elisha was in Columbia Jan. 28 as keynote speaker at a remembrance event presented by the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust. In an interview with South Carolina Public Radio, he said it's essential to remember the Holocaust, because genocides are still happening today, and he named an example.
"Let's take one, look at Rwanda," he said referring to the event during the 1994 Rwandan civil war. "That was a real genocide. You had one ethnic group calling the other cockroaches and literally pledge to exterminate them. (They engaged in) hate speech from early childhood. It didn't happen on the scale and intensity that the Holocaust happened, but it was a genocide." He listed the Armenian genocide (also called the Armenian Holocaust) by the Turks between 1914 and 1923 as another 20th-century example, though it was earlier than the Holocaust. These events are "a warning to us as we live here today in the 21st century about what happens when extremism and demagoguery go unchecked."
Wiesel said that antisemitism and other forms of intolerance are growing throughout the world. "We're not the only ethnicity under attack, for sure. There's racism, and you have attacks on immigrants. You look at the UK, where Jeremy Corbin was almost elected as the prime minister with poisonous antisemitism spreading through his party."
Wiesel also expressed disappointment in history education in the United States. "Something like two out of three millenials don't know what Auschwitz was. Recognition of what the Holocaust was and its significance is relatively low. So we're clearly failing in some way in telling people this incredibly important piece of history."
He spoke of combating the spread of hate speech and actions, and said a lot of it had to do with parenting and family values, "how we raise our kids and how we expose them to social media. How we explain to them that in social media, it's uncurated, it's unmoderated. You don't have the benefit of a newspaper editor who is sitting there for better or worse, trying to keep something relatively balanced."
Asked what lessons can be taken from the Holocaust, Wiesel said "there are consequences to words. And when we casually get used to hearing hate, and worse, repeating or speaking hate, violence is a very real possibility. Potentially on scales we never comprehended or conceived of."
There is a moral imperative to preserve memory, added Wiesel, made more urgent by the aging and deaths of so many Holocaust survivors and witnesses. "The fact that people can deny something that happened only 75 years ago, think about what that means for the malleability of truth, the malleability of facts. We see it more than ever in today's world. 'Fake news' is a thing now...one has to look to primary sources, and not just engage in casually reading what somebody is passing off as truth in a social media post."
Wiesel concluded that when it comes to Holocaust denial and what it means for the larger concept of truth, all people have a responsibility, as consumers of information, to be stewards of facts and truth.