During this month, when candles will be lit in remembrance of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and with commemorations across the globe in observance of January 27, 2015 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the global community stands at a cross-road of consciousness. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, it was hoped that the world would stand together to confront hatred, intolerance and genocide. But today, violence continues on a global scale. In Syria the worst humanitarian crisis in decades will soon see refugees surpass 3 million people (Chicago has a population of 2.7 million). In Burma over 140,000 Rohingya Muslim are prohibited from marrying, having children, obtaining healthcare, working, and going to school. A recent U.K. survey conducted by YouGov for the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA.) revealed that forty-five percent of all Britons hold antisemitic views and stereotypes. Such events call into question how global our commitment is to a genuinely binding sense of common humanity. And as we reflect on seventy years since the Holocaust, we are reminded again that remembrance without vigilance, and knowledge without action, remains a hollow promise.
It is easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges before each of us. But we cannot retreat into the convenience of silence. History has shown that in midst of unbelievable darkness, there were those that heard the call and acted. Against this backdrop we have seen signs of hope. Millions are adding their voices to protest marches and demonstrations in Paris, London, Hong Kong and Chicago, because they believe that together, they can make a difference. We must remember that the most extraordinary changes often come about through the voices and efforts of ordinary citizens. We must rediscover our courage as a collective community and act on the challenges before us – to raise awareness, challenge our policymakers, and no matter how we define our geographic boundaries speak out for the imperiled, wherever they may be.
The Illinois Holocaust Museum teaches visitors to not only find their voices, but to want those voices heard. In the closing film of the museum’s Karkomi Permanent Exhibition, Holocaust survivors Rabbi Joachim Prinz and Leo Melamed, speak about the dangers of indifference, and the power of turning knowledge into action. As the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, Rabbi Prinz urges visitors to learn that, “the most urgent, most shameful and the most tragic problem, is silence.” Leo Melamed, whose journey of survival would eventually come through the humanity of Japanese Counsel General to Lithuania, Chuine Sugihara, inspires visitors. “A single individual seemingly is powerless in face of these kinds of atrocities. The key of course is that a multitude of one persons is a huge force, with a very big voice.”
During this time of commemoration, as we think about the world today and where we need to go, we must remain hopeful. We can find inspiration in the more than a million people who marched in the streets of Paris to express their support for the victims of the brazen murders of their fellow countrymen. We can be encouraged by the growing grassroots community, with organizations like i-ACT and The Unsilence Project that advocate giving voice to the voiceless. Finally, we can be empowered by innovation and the creation of new resources and technology that can help us all come together in a unified movement of awareness, global action and ultimately prevention.
Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, one of the most horrific sites of genocide in history, we must choose to honor our commitment to shatter the silence; and to prove that a unified global community can change the world for tomorrow.
Photo: Tutsi survivor Immaculee Mukantaganira, Museum Director of Educational Outreach and Genocide Initiatives, Kelley Szany and Carl Wilkens. Credit: Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center