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Section: Survival and legacy

Remembering the Holocaust: awareness, museums and memorials

The world’s oldest institution dedicated to the study and documentation of Nazism and the Holocaust is The Wiener Holocaust Library, which was founded in Amsterdam by Alfred Wiener in 1933. Shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939, the Library was relocated to London, where it has remained ever since. The Library offers an archive, library, exhibitions, events and educational programme on the Holocaust.

The world’s oldest institution dedicated to the study and documentation of Nazism and the Holocaust is The Wiener Holocaust Library, which was founded in Amsterdam by Alfred Wiener in 1933. Shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939, the Library was relocated to London, where it has remained ever since. The Library offers an archive, library, exhibitions, events and educational programme on the Holocaust.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

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 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.

Memory of the Roma Genocide

The memorial to Roma and Sinti victims in Tiergarten park, Berlin, Germany which was opened by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2012.

The memorial to Roma and Sinti victims in Tiergarten park, Berlin, Germany which was opened by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2012.

Courtesy of Sami Mlouhi [Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain].

The Nazis persecuted Roma before and during the Second World War. In the genocide carried out during the war, the Nazis murdered at least 200,000 and as many as 500,000 Roma people. This event is referred to as the Roma Genocide, the Porrajmos, or the Samudaripen.

In post-war Europe, Roma continued to face widespread prejudice. There was little recognition of the Roma experience during the war and public understanding of the persecution they faced under the Nazis was distorted .

In West Germany, it was asserted that Roma had not been persecuted by the Nazis for racial reasons, as had Jews, but because of their (alleged) ‘ a-social ’ nature and ‘criminality’. The German Federal High Court declared in 1956: ‘[the Nazis’ measures toward Roma were] not by their nature, specifically geared to racial persecution, but within the scope of standard police and security’ [quoted in Becky Taylor, Another Darkness, Another Dawn: A History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 190].

Therefore, some believed that the Nazis had been justified in their actions towards Roma. Roma struggled to obtain compensation for their persecution, and perpetrator trials overlooked the treatment of Roma.

In the Soviet Union and Communist countries in the post-war era there was little recognition of Roma as a group specifically targeted for persecution by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War. Governments preferred to just treat all as ‘victims of fascist persecution’, which tended to mean that the suffering of marginalised Roma communities was ignored until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Roma in Eastern Europe have faced continued marginalisation and discrimination since the war.

In Germany, it was not until 1963 that the courts partially conceded that racism was a contributing factor in their persecution. This concession meant that Roma were able to begin claiming compensation, although only for persecution committed from 1938 onwards, and, in reality, this translated into very few successful claims.

In the late 1970s, Roma and Sinti  activists attempted to challenge the attitude towards the Roma Genocide in Germany by campaigning for greater recognition of their persecution under the Nazis. In 1979, a demonstration using the motto ‘Gassed in Auschwitz, Persecuted to This Day’ was held at the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and the following year, a group of twelve Roma – three of whom were survivors of Nazi persecution – took part in a hunger strike at Dachau concentration camp to raise awareness of the genocide and protest against continuing discrimination. The hunger strike drew international attention.

Shortly after these events, on 17 March 1982, the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt officially acknowledged that Roma had been the victims of genocide under the Nazis as a result of racial persecution. However, it was not until thirty years later, in October 2012, that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened a memorial specifically dedicated to Roma and Sinti murdered by the Nazi regime.

ADVANCED CONTENT

Roma Memory of the Roma Genocide

Historically, the Roma Genocide has been neglected in popular memory of the period.

It has been claimed that this was because Roma themselves did not discuss or remember the genocide. However, this interpretation ignores the role played by the non-Roma majority in continuing prejudiced attitudes towards Roma after the Second World War.

Research by Sławomir Kapralski demonstrates that while some groups of Roma do not actively commemorate the genocide of Roma, others do. Kapralski contests earlier arguments, such as those put forward by Jan Yoors, who argued that Roma as a whole were a passive group ‘content to remain forgotten’ [Jan Yoors, Crossing: A Journal of Survival and Resistance in World War II (London: Redwood Press Limited, 1972), 34] and thus were not interested in actively engaging with their own history due to cultural traditions. Kapralski also challenges the conclusions of the historian Michael Stewart, who explored Roma memorialise their persecution in the Holocaust, but primarily through their interactions with non-Roma populations, who remember for them [Michael Stewart, “Remembering without commemoration: the mnemonics and politics of Holocaust memories among European Roma”, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10:3, (September 2004), 561-582].

Kapralski explains that Roma are not silent on the subject of the genocide, but are rather silenced by the societies in which they live, and that some Roma do actively commemorate the genocide [Sławomir Kapralski, “The Aftermath of the Roma Genocide: From Implicit Memories to Commemoration” in Anton Weiss-Wendt (ed), The Nazi Genocide of Roma: Reassessment and Commemoration (Oxford: Berghahn, 2013): 229-251].

For example, the Roma community of Tarnów, a city in south-eastern Poland, commemorate the genocide through the Caravan Memorial, a joint endeavour between the local museum and the Social-Cultural Association in Tarnów. During the memorial, a caravan journeys from the museum, which houses a permanent exhibition on Roma, to several important and relevant local sites around Tarnów which relate to the Roma Genocide or the Holocaust. Along the way those accompanying the caravan say prayers, mourn, light candles, lay flowers and sing and play music.

Similarly, in Germany, since its foundation in 1982, the Zentralrat Deutscher Sinti und Roma (the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma) has organised regular commemoration activities, and in 1997 opened a permanent exhibition on the genocide entitled ‘Documentations – und Kulturzentrum Deutscher Sinti und Roma’ in their headquarters in Heidelberg.

Memory of the Roma Genocide is complicated, but the silence that has historically surrounded it is not due to Romani culture, as has been sometimes asserted. As Kapralski concludes, this silence is better explained by ‘the particularity of Romani genocide, the way it has been (not) documented, and the way Roma have been perceived by majority population’ [Kapralski, 248].

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