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Section: Survival and Legacy

Remembering the Holocaust: awareness, museums and memorials

The Holocaust has come to be understood and remembered as the greatest act of brutality and genocide in modern memory.  However, this was not the immediate understanding of the event following liberation and the end of the Second World War. Memory of the Holocaust has developed differently in different countries at different times.

This section explains the main developments and differences in memory of the Holocaust across the world, and the places and events that contribute to this: museums, memorials and Holocaust Memorial Day.

Remembering the Holocaust

The Holocaust was remembered differently in different part of Europe. This was because although the Allies worked together to beat Germany and the Axis Alliance in the Second World War, there were key ideological differences between them, most notably between America and Britain, and the Soviet Union.

America and Britain were democratic, capitalist societies, where governments were elected. The Soviet Union was a communist dictatorship with one party rule.  After the war, these differences, alongside the race to develop nuclear weapons, resulted in the beginning of the Cold War.

This section will look at case studies of different countries and groups of countries to explore how and when their awareness and memory of the Holocaust developed and changed.

Eastern Europe

After liberation, Communist governments under the domination of the Soviet Union were formed in much of  Eastern Europe. These governments tended not to recognise Jews as specific victims of Nazi persecution. This was because identifying different victims and groups went against the idea of the shared struggle against Nazi fascism for communism.

For example, at the Babi Yar memorial erected in 1959, where the Nazis murdered 35,000 Jews, was inscribed ‘Here between 1941 and 1943, the German Fascist invaders executed more than 100,000 citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war’. While recognising Nazi brutalities, the memorial did this in very general terms, specifically making no mention of Jews. This was a broad political decision taken in order to defend the legitimacy of post-war communist governments and unite citizens of these countries.

Although after the fall of communism between 1989-1991 discussion of the Holocaust grew, it is still subject to significant influence and explained in a way which suits each individual government political aims. For example, after the fall of communism in Poland, there was a resurgence of nationalism, which in turn led to increased antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

USA

While the initial liberations of camps such as Dachau by the American army of camps shocked the American public at the time, the Holocaust as a whole took much longer to seep into popular awareness and understanding. Memories of the Second World War continued to dominate, and the role of the Holocaust within it was somewhat overlooked.

The 1961 Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem received a great deal of media attention in the United States which in turn increased awareness of the Holocaust – 87% of Americans had heard of the trial at the time. Despite this, the long-term impact of the trial remained was small, and knowledge generally was limited. For example, in 1964, a proposal for a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in New York was rejected, on the grounds that monuments within the parks should be limited to events relevant to American history.

In the 1970s awareness of the Holocaust in America transformed. A growing body of academic texts, films, literature and television productions – such as the mini-series Holocaust, produced by NBC and broadcast in 1978 – were produced. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter announced a Presidential Commission to look into a National Holocaust Memorial, which in 1980 culminated in Congress unanimously approving the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, to be built in Washington. The museum opened in 1993, the same year that the popular Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List was released.

American awareness of the Holocaust has continued to grow, to the point that it is now very much part of American history in a way it was not in 1960s.  As the historian Peter Novick has asserted ‘‘In various ways, for various purposes, the Holocaust had entered the American cultural mainstream; it had become part of the language; it had become […] inescapable’ [Peter Novick, The Holocaust and Collective Memory (Bloomsbury, 1999), 231].

Holocaust memory in Britain

In the decades after the war, the mass murder of Europe’s Jews was not a widely discussed subject in Britain, although there were a number of books written on the subject by British historians during this period.

Popular interest in the Holocaust began to grow in the late 1970s, with the premiere of popular documentaries such as the NBC series Holocaust (1978), Kitty – Return to Auschwitz in 1979, and Blind Eye to Murder (1978) on mainstream television. For many, these documentaries forced widespread confrontation with the Holocaust for the first time.

Awareness of the Holocaust grew further in the 1980s. A small memorial was established in Hyde Park in 1983, and academic interest in the subject in Britain also increased significantly. The Holocaust also became prominent in this period through popular literature, such as the Booker Prize winning novel Schindler’s Ark (1982), which was later turned into the 1993 film Schindler’s List. The film was seen by over a quarter of the population in Britain.

By the late 1980s, there was a focus upon the teaching of the Holocaust, and the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) was established in 1988. In 1991, the Holocaust was included in the history curriculum for British schoolchildren, albeit as an ‘experience’ of the Second World War than an event in itself. In 1995, the first private Holocaust memorial centre was opened at Beth Shalom in Nottingham.

On 27 January 2001 (the date of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1944), the first national Holocaust Memorial Day took place following the Stockholm Declaration of the previous year. In the same year, a major permanent exhibition on the Holocaust opened at the Imperial War Museum. The exhibition proved extremely popular, attracting around 600,000 visitors a year. After over twenty years on display, the exhibition will be rejuvenated and reopened in 2021.

In recent years, the focus has been on Holocaust commemoration, as seen in the creation of the British Hero of the Holocaust award in 2010 and the Holocaust Commission in 2013. The commission recommended the creation of a national memorial and learning centre to act as a focal point of Holocaust commemoration in Britain. In January 2016, David Cameron announced this memorial would be built next in Westminster, next to Parliament. It is due to open in 2022.

Awareness of the Holocaust in Britain has thus continued to grow. In 2019 a survey showed that 84% of adults agreed it was important to know about the Holocaust in today’s world. Despite this, there are still widespread misconceptions about the Holocaust.

Memorials

Remembering and memorialising the Holocaust is difficult and complex. As the historian Dan Stone asks, ‘what form of monument could ever prove suitable to so profound a catastrophe?’ [Dan Stone (ed), The Historiography of the Holocaust, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 509]. Despite the difficulty that the topic poses, since the end of the Second World War, thousands of memorials have been built and dedicated to the Holocaust. Memorials are not apolitical: they must be viewed in context of what they are built for, where, and by whom.

The purpose of memorials is typically to celebrate or remember a specific historical event, although this is extremely broad and can vary dramatically. In the case of the Holocaust, for example, memorials have been created to celebrate Jewish resistance to the Nazis, commemorate the victims, and remind viewers of the evils of fascism.

The Warsaw Ghetto monument, unveiled in 1948 in front of 20,000 spectators, memorialises both Jewish resistance in the ghetto and their ultimate destruction. The front of the large stone monument focuses on resistance in the form of the armed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the back of the monument shows Jews being driven out of the ghetto.

The diversity of experiences and events in the Holocaust are also reflected in the varied nature and design of monuments. The memorial at the former concentration camp Buchenwald, for example, takes the form of a stone slab permanently heated to the temperature of a human body (36.5 Celsius) and engraved with the names of the different national groups persecuted there. In Berlin, the artist Micha Ullman commemorated the Nazis book burnings of 1933 by creating a ‘sunken library’. The library, unveiled in 1995, is sunk into the ground and only visible through a glass panel on the street. While the shelves have space for 20,000 books, they are empty, symbolising both the destroyed books and the lives of their owners.

Museums

There are now hundreds of museums dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust all over the world. Some of these museums are based at sites connected to the Holocaust – for example at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp Complex, but others are purpose built in countries across the globe, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

As awareness of the Holocaust has increased since the late twentieth century, especially in the Western world, so the number of Holocaust museums has increased.  Museums feature not just objects and documents in exhibitions, but events, educational programs, online archives, digital activities, and research venues.

For some, the architecture itself is designed, as with memorials, to make the visitor question and reflect on the Holocaust and its incomprehensibility.

Holocaust Memorial Day

On 27 January 2000 (the fifty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz), forty-six governments from around the world, including Britain, met in Stockholm, Sweden, to discuss Holocaust education, remembrance and research. The attendees of the meeting signed a declaration, known as the Stockholm Declaration, which committed them to preserving the memory of those killed in the Holocaust in their own countries.

Following this declaration, many governments, including the United Kingdom, established a Holocaust Memorial Day. Every year on the 27 January, events are organised to remember the victims of the Holocaust and raise awareness of the topic. The events organised to mark the day are extremely diverse, including lectures from University professors, assemblies or speeches from Holocaust survivors (or family members of Holocaust survivors), minutes of silence to remember the victims of the genocide, discussions of different aspects of the event, and concerts.

The UK’s first Holocaust Memorial Day was on 27 January 2001. Holocaust Memorial Day was initially coordinated by the Home Office in UK government. However, in May 2005 a charitable organisation, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), was founded to take over organisation of the event.

The establishment of Holocaust Memorial Day has encouraged mass participation in remembering the Holocaust and increased awareness of the genocide in Britain. The day continues to be popular, with over 17,000 events taking place in Britain to mark HMD 2020.

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