“Remembering the victims of the Holocaust”

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert Kane
  • Air University director of history

Between January 1933, when Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945, the Nazi regime and its collaborators caused the deaths of between five and six million European Jews, one-third of the pre-1939 Jewish population of the world.

To remember the victims of the Holocaust and other genocides since 1945, the United States government established the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in October 1980 and held the first national commemoration of Holocaust victims in April 1981, the anniversary month of the heroic 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  This year, the U.S. government has set aside the week of April 23-30 as the official, ‘Days of Remembrance with the theme,’ “Learning from the Holocaust: Legacy of Perseverance.”

I have a personal interest in remembering the victims of the Holocaust because my paternal grandparents were Jews who left Kiev, Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire, in 1907.

In 1920, Ukrainian nationalists murdered about 110,000 Jews before the advancing Red Army stopped the killing.  Later, between June 1941 and late 1944, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 90 percent of the Jews living in occupied Russia.  My grandparents would certainly have fallen victim to the Holocaust if they had not left Russia years before.

In April 1945, American, British, and Canadian troops, advancing into Germany, encountered the horrors of the Nazi regime when they liberated tens of thousands of starving, disease-ridden, and dying prisoners in numerous Nazi concentration camps across Germany.

Yet, despite the appalling conditions of these camps, western troops did not see first-hand any of the death camps where the Nazis murdered about three million Jews from all over occupied Europe by shooting or gassing, between mid-1941 to February 1945.  All but one of the death camps were located in Poland, liberated by the Soviet Army in spring 1945.

Another two to three million European Jews died from disease, starvation and execution by the Nazis and their European collaborators between January 1933 and the end of the war in Europe.

European Jews, however, were not the only victims of Nazi racial policies during the war.  The Nazis caused the deaths of 500,000 Romani (Gypsies), over 15 million non-Jewish Soviet citizens, about two million non-Jewish Poles, and 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped Germans.  Every occupied country in Europe suffered terrible human losses during the war years.

As Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and author once said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

The terrible conditions of the camps during World War II and time has taken their toll of Holocaust survivors. Most are now in their late eighties and many pass away every day. In the last five years, the German government has put on trial a small number of perpetrators, probably the last, as they themselves are in their eighties and early nineties.

The ‘Days of Remembrance’ commemoration is not only to remember the victims of Nazi persecution during World War II, but also similar acts of genocide since 1945, such as the 1975 ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia, the 1994-95 Rwandan genocide, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Balkans, 1994-2000, and the genocide of the Yazidis in northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, 2014-2017.

“It is up to us, the current generation to remember the Holocaust as the means to honor its victims and those of subsequent genocides,” Colonel Eric Shafa, 42d Air Base Wing Commander, said “Just as important, through the debate and discussion about the Holocaust and its atrocities, we can help teach current and future generations about the importance of recognizing and standing up to evil, ethnic hatred, intolerance, inhumanity and persecution of the innocent.”