Jan. 26, 2024

International Holocaust Remembrance Day — a critical reminder to never stop learning

Remembering the victims, survivors, and lessons from the Holocaust on Jan. 27
A black and white image depicting a group of children behind a barbed wire fence dressed in striped prison clothes at the Auschwitz concentration camp
A group of children at the Auschwitz concentration camp after its liberation by the Soviet Army in January 1945. Associated Press

On Jan. 27, 1945, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp witnessed the liberation of seven thousand individuals. Since 2005, the international community has marked the day as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day — dedicated to honouring the memory of the six million Jews and more than six million individuals who were murdered during the Holocaust. In Calgary, the intergenerational impacts of the Holocaust are deeply felt through the lives and stories of survivors, immigrant family histories, and our city’s war veterans

“International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a time for all of us at UCalgary to pause and reflect on the history, experiences, and continuing legacy of the Holocaust,” says Dr. Ed McCauley, president and vice-chancellor“Today, we are especially concerned about the rise of antisemitism, Holocaust denial, and the decline in overall Holocaust knowledge, and UCalgary has an important role to play through teaching, research, and community engagement to ensure ‘never again’ becomes a reality.”

Learning about the stories of the victims, learning from survivors and those who struggled for liberation are essential both for understanding and remembering the Holocaust and for combating antisemitism.  

Alarming gaps in knowledge 

Despite efforts to combat Holocaust denialism, studies show a worrying decline in knowledge about the Holocaust and its ongoing legacies. A 2019 survey conducted by the Azrieli Foundation found that one-fifth of Canadians under the age of 34 were not sure if they had ever heard about the Holocaust. The trend continues with a third of North American teens surveyed in 2021 thinking the Holocaust was exaggerated or fabricated. 

Today, we face additional challenges in remembering. “We live in a ‘post-truth’ age,” says Dr. Naor Cohen, PhD, assistant professor (teaching) in the Haskayne School of Business. 

“The ubiquitous presence of social media and AI, characterized by information overload and echo chambers, profoundly complicates the issue of truth and remembrance. These tools and digital narratives shape our perception of reality, making it difficult to discern what is real from what is not. But we have to insist that facts exist and matter. The act of remembering plays a big role in that.”

The Azrieli Foundation survey also found that the less aware people were of the Holocaust, the more tolerant they were of antisemitic stereotypes and tropes that promote prejudice and hatred toward Jews. These studies highlight an urgent need for Holocaust education within our communities and the ongoing need to combat antisemitism. 

Antisemitism on the rise

Holocaust denial and antisemitism are on the rise. From 2012 to 2022, B’nai Brith Audit of Antisemitic Incidents indicated a 105 per cent increase in antisemitic hate crimes. Police have also reported  a spike in reported hate crimes amid the Israel-Hamas war. 

Dr. Angy Cohen, PhD, adjunct associate professor, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, and former Jenny Belzberg Postdoctoral Associate in Israel Studies, attributes the antisemitism that we are seeing today to persistent anti-Jewish biases and hatred, including long-standing stereotypes and conspiracies of Jews as “powerful” and “rich.” There is a contradiction in this type of stereotyping, Cohen explains. 

The absence of a moral analysis beyond power dynamics fuels today’s antisemitism and makes anti-Jewish sentiments acceptable and legitimate, in so far as they are perceived as a response to abuse of power (colonization, for example). This kind of antisemitism is particularly dangerous because it stems from the commitment to fighting racism and other forms of discrimination.”

With the Israeli victims of Oct. 7, 2023, on her mind, Angy Cohen is reflecting on the obligations humans hold toward one another. “We should all be asking questions about what we actually think those who oppose us deserve. The answers might not be pretty, but I believe the only way forward is to face the fact that violence and the destruction of others is a much more inherent part of our systems of thought than we might be willing to accept.” 

Antisemitism in all its forms — hate crimes, cyber bullying, and negative stereotyping — are consequences of these learned systems of thought about which Angy Cohen speaks. 

A need to keep learning and unlearning

It was only last year when Alberta and other provinces announced they will implement mandatory Holocaust education in the K-12 curriculum. Yet, considering the ongoing impacts of the Holocaust, it’s essential for this education to continue after high school.

Dr. Maureen Hiebert, PhD, associate professor, political science, teaches a genocide studies course at UCalgary. Hiebert points to how Holocaust education has been embedded within existing UCalgary courses including history, sociology, and film studies. 

“I didn’t consciously create my genocide studies course with Holocaust or genocide awareness per se in mind. I approach the Holocaust and genocide as important political, social, and cultural phenomena,” Hiebert says.

“My sense is that for a university that does not have a Holocaust/Genocide or Jewish Studies program, we’re doing a good job of teaching the Holocaust on its own and in relation to other cases of genocide and topics like mass violence, human rights, and extremist regimes,” she continues. 

Outside of classes, Hiebert also points to the small, but valuable, collection of resources at the library, Hillel events, and the personal community-building she has witnessed within her classes.   

“The UCalgary is committed to the hard work of advancing a more fair, equitable and inclusive campus culture,” says Dr. Malinda Smith, vice-provost and associate vice president research (EDIA). 

“This requires us to combat antisemitism, Holocaust denial, and the proliferation of anti-Jewish stereotypes and tropes. Now, more than ever, we need to promote our shared humanity and the inviolability of human rights and human dignity of all who learn, work, and live on our campus.”

The power, and pain, in commemorating 

One way we can maintain connection to the Holocaust and the lessons that flow from it is through stories. Many survivors of the Holocaust have demonstrated courage and generosity in sharing their stories, as seen in the Here to Tell exhibition featured in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in 2022. However, many stories are never shared. 

Family stories create a bond between us and those who came before us, creating a common language, a shared way of telling stories,” Angy Cohen says. 

“We receive the pain and disasters lived by our family members and make space for it, keep it as part of their legacy, giving them the attention and shelter they always deserved. These stories are less a celebration than an act of intergenerational responsibility, an act of love and respect.” 

Angy Cohen’s words reflect how much pain, also hope and promise, can be rooted within these stories. Within Jewish families, these stories, and the emotions that come along with them, are a responsibility to the next generation, as Cohen says. But for non-Jewish communities, there is also a standing responsibility — to remember, to act to prevent history repeating itself.

“If we are remembered, there is proof of our existence that can be imparted to others. If we do not remember the Holocaust and other genocides, we will unwittingly finish the job of the perpetrators. If no one remembers the victims, including entire families and communities, it will be as if they never existed,” says Hiebert. 

“Holocaust memorialization and education is critical now that most survivors have passed away — even child survivors are in their late '70s and beyond. Soon, no survivors will be here to tell their stories.”  

“It is our collective responsibility to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are not only preserved but also imparted with depth and sensitivity,” says Dr. Penny Werthner, interim provost and vice-president (academic)“We have made strides in Holocaust education. We also recognize the need to continually enhance our knowledge. We encourage every member of our campus community to take a moment to observe the Holocaust remembrance.” 

Learn more about the Holocaust

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