How is Holocaust commemoration changing?

Members of 3GDC mark Yom Hashoah | Photo credit: 3GDC

By Jan Lee

Jan. 27 marks the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, commemorated by the United Nations since 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the United States, it often complements Yom Hashoah, Israel’s national date of remembrance, which this year falls in April.

Steven Salzberg, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, said that the two events, which in the early years after the Holocaust also served to recognize those who had survived the Holocaust, have gained increasing significance in recent years not just as a memorial and commemoration of survivors’ experiences, but as an educational tool by which to teach future generations about the Holocaust and its impact.

“[Holocaust Remembrance Day] was their day for [survivors] to remember their families. It was the special day for them,” said Salzberg, a psychiatrist who treats victims of trauma.
The inevitable passing of the survivor generation has brought about a shift in how the Holocaust is recognized in annual events. “I think there has been a bit more of an intellectual approach than an emotional approach now. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just we don’t have the actual survivors present.”

Salzberg noted that second- and third-generation family members are now stepping up to recognize the survivors, who in many cases made sure their children and grandchildren were aware that the Holocaust occurred. He said that has changed the tenor of the commemoration, but it’s also increased opportunities for educational events.

Salzberg volunteers at schools and other events to talk about the impact of the Holocaust and his father’s legacy as a survivor, and “the horrors of what was done to them.”

He said the strength that they often had to find in themselves is now becoming part of the story that is shared in events. “It’s not to discount the horrors, it’s just that I’m always amazed at what people did within themselves to be able make it through [the Holocaust] and make it through the time after it [as a survivor].”

For many of the organizations that help organize yearly Remembrance Day events, the pandemic has also had a significant role in how commemorations are now held. Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington Executive Director Ron Halber acknowledged that his organization was forced to shift to virtual programming a couple of years And while it meant that attendees couldn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder, grieve together or acknowledge the past together in a community setting, it still reached a significantly greater number of viewers.

Last year’s virtual Yom Hashoah commemoration was viewed by 900 people in real time, and 14,000 viewers after the event on YouTube. By hosting the event online and then making it available as a recording, the JCRC was able to reach people not only across the country, but across the world.

“What we found out is that [virtual programming] is the way of the future,” Halber said.
The JCRC, which organizes educational and commemorative programs throughout the year said while it hopes to have an in-person event this year, it will be hosting its Yom Hashoah remembrance online as well.

AJ Siegel, who serves as the co-chair for 3GDC, an organization of third-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors who participate in commemorative and educational events throughout the area, said the virtual format has helped the organization reach increasing numbers of viewers and succeed in greater educational outreach.

“Thankfully, we’ve been successful at moving to a virtual format, with 185 people joining us for our Yom Hashoah virtual commemoration in 2021 and 100 participating in our Kristallnacht program in November,” Siegel said, adding that they are also succeeding in reaching more young professionals in the Washington area. “3GDC constitutes a living memorial that preserves and honors our grandparents through education, advocacy and community-building.”

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington will also be hosting the International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration online, on Jan. 26, said Kristy Buechner, communications specialist for the museum.

She said that recognizing the events and consequences of the Holocaust bears an added significance this year.

“This year, International Holocaust Remembrance Day comes at a pivotal moment. The Holocaust serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of unchecked hatred and the fragility of societies.

“As antisemitism, racism and neo-Nazism are becoming more mainstream, we must commit ourselves to learning the lessons from this dark chapter in history and acting on them. A commitment to shaping a better future is precisely what we owe the victims of the past,” Buechner said.

Correction: This article was changed to correct Steven Salzberg’s first name. It was also changed to note the correct number of years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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