My first job out of college was for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). My interest in the Holocaust centered on Jewish victims and survivors. I had a visceral objection to thinking about perpetrators and bystanders, as well as some ignorance about the Nazis’ many non-Jewish victims.
Later on in graduate school at the University of Chicago, my advisor insisted that I read Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men,” about one of the Nazi mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen. With great discomfort I completed the assignment. So began a personal process that mirrored the evolving mission of Holocaust studies and of institutions like the USHMM and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, where I have served as director since July 2015.
When we talk about the Holocaust now, we talk not only about the Jewish people, but also about perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers and victims of many backgrounds. We talk about the relevance of the Holocaust to events that are happening now in the world. I never imagined that the unique plight of the Jews in the Holocaust would be left out of the narrative.
When the White House issued its official statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day late last month, it did not include an explicit mention of Jews or of anti-Semitism. Many in our community have asked me if that matters. Unequivocally: Yes. While the Nazis targeted a number of groups, an anti-Semitic ethos pervaded the thinking of Adolf Hitler and his acolytes. Hatred of Jews was an obsession. It was the Jewish question that in Nazi thinking required a final solution. The Nazi war against the Jews claimed two thirds of Europe’s Jews over the years of the war.
The USHMM defines the Holocaust as “the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.” The second paragraph of the museum’s definition includes all of the victim groups: “Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, and some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians and others). Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals.”
All victims should be acknowledged and mourned.
This year’s official statement acknowledges none of those victim groups. It opens: “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”
“Nazi terror” does not begin to describe the legal, procedural, brutal campaign that was waged against the Nazis’ primary target: the Jews of Europe. It does not acknowledge the first victims of poison gas, the elderly and people with disabilities who were murdered in mobile gas vans. Nothing is said about Roma victims of the Nazis, who were described as racially inferior in a revision of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws. Many were rounded up into ghettos to be killed in mobile gas vans and in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The list goes on.
It is the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s mission to inspire engagement with Holocaust history and connect it to today. We remember, every day. We honor the memory of the victims, every day. We study the stages of the Nazi crime and condemn the complicity of bystanders. Anything less would be unacceptable.
Education is at the core of our activities, exhibitions and annual commemorative events. Our response to rising anti-Semitism around the world and closer to home is to redouble our efforts to educate about the Holocaust and to fight the persistence of hatred, racism and bigotry in our time.
Lauren Apter Bairnsfather is director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.