Holocaust in no peril of being forgotten

Day of Remembrance speaker says interest continues to rise

April 23, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The risk of forgetting, it would seem, has never been greater.

Sixty years have passed since the Nazis began their systematic destruction of the Jewish people. Allied soldiers liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp 56 years ago.

Survivors, those who witnessed the atrocities that resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews, are aging. Their weakening limbs can carry only so many more candles; their quavering voices can share only so many more memories.

So at a time when the Holocaust appears in danger of becoming just another episode of history, Rabbi Irving Greenberg traveled to Baltimore yesterday to argue that peril of indifference to Hitler's final solution remains low.

"We are struck by the fact that public interest in the Holocaust is greater year after year," said Greenberg, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, speaking at a Yom Ha'Shoah, or Holocaust Day of Remembrance, observance at the War Memorial Building.

The Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. - which the memorial council oversees - logged 17,000 visitors in a day last week, the most in its history. Overall, 70 percent of museum visitors are not Jews, Greenberg said.

It is clear, he said, that the Holocaust "sheds light not only on the Jewish people's vulnerability, but on all of us."

And part of its message, he said, is as true today as it was six decades ago: With modern advances come crucial decisions on how to use them. "There is no limit on good; there is no limit on evil," Greenberg said. "And we have to make a choice."

The transporting of millions of people to death camps during a war was a logistical breakthrough, Greenberg said. Camps like Auschwitz were made possible through technology.

Modern concepts of bureaucracy allowed the isolation of Jews and other minority groups in ghettoes, Greenberg said, and allowed Germans to carry out the task of killing "without hatred." German soldiers and functionaries were driven by another modern concept: that humans can create a perfect world. In Hitler's eyes, that meant a world populated only by Aryans.

"The deepest and saddest truth is that the Holocaust was only possible in the 20th or 21st centuries," Greenberg said.

And as the 21st century gets under way, the lessons are being taught with increased vigor.

The Baltimore Jewish Council, which sponsored the observance, presented tributes to Baltimore County public schools and the Archdiocese of Baltimore Catholic Schools for programs that reach hundreds of students.

"Our students are truly touched and affected by what they have learned," said Nancy Boyd, social studies coordinator with the county school system. Added Ronald J. Valenti, schools superintendent for the archdiocese: "Our children will be taught that the Holocaust will not be forgotten."

No one in yesterday's crowd of 700 personified the duality of aging memory and fresh learning better than Werner Cohen.

A 79-year-old Baltimore resident, Cohen was released from the Dachau concentration camp when he was 17 on the promise he would leave his native Germany. After living in Great Britain for seven years, he came to the United States and raised his family.

Cohen's wife, Hilda, died in 1997. It was only then that he discovered a manuscript of poetry and other writings about her time in Auschwitz. He is editing the volume and hopes to have it published.

Asked if he felt a responsibility to share his and his wife's memories, Cohen said, "I do feel that."

"The people who didn't make it said the people who get out have the obligation," he said.

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