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ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. — Fifteen-year-old Elie Wiesel wasn’t afraid of anything. He wasn’t afraid when the Nazis occupied Romania where he and his family lived. He wasn’t afraid when his family was forced to relocate to a ghetto near the town of Sighet — now called Sighetu Marmatiei.
Even in May 1944, when under German pressure, Romanian authorities began rounding up the Jews in the ghettos, to include his family, Wiesel wasn’t afraid. “I wasn’t worried,” said Wiesel in an interview with CNN shortly before his death in 2016. “We had no idea Auschwitz existed.”
However, once he and hundreds of other Jews were packed into cattle cars for their trip to Poland, Elie knew something terrible was happening. Upon arrival at Auschwitz concentration camp, Wiesel lied to the guards and told them he was 18 years old. This meant he was marked for work — not for death.
This lie saved his life, as 90% of the people from his ghetto, including his mother and one of his sisters, were killed upon arrival at Auschwitz.
Later on, Wiesel and his father Shlomo were transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. His father died weeks before the camp was liberated on April 11, 1945, by the U.S. Third Army. Elie Wiesel survived the horrors of the camp and went on to become a writer, professor, political activist and Nobel laureate.
Every April, the United States remembers Elie’s story and the stories of the other 11 million victims of Nazi atrocities during Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Yom HaShoah is observed in April because it is the month that the majority of the camps were liberated by the Allied armies, and because it remembers the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on April 19, 1943.
This year Remembrance Day will be on April 28. However, that entire week from April 24 to May 1 will be observed as the Holocaust Days of Remembrance. The theme for this year is "Determination, Hope and Honor."
But as decades pass, the survivors and the liberators of the camps die and society becomes further removed from the horrors of the Holocaust.
In a survey done two years ago by NBC News, 23% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 39 believe that the Holocaust was either a myth, or the number of people killed had been greatly exaggerated. Almost half of the respondents couldn’t name even one of the nearly 40,000 camps or ghettos.
Even more worrisome, according to an article by NBC News from Sept. 16, 2020, half of Americans under 40 have seen Holocaust denial posts online, and Nazi symbols in their community over the preceding five years.
“There is no doubt that Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in a Sept. 16, 2020, interview with NBC News. “And when we fail to actively remember the facts of what happened, we risk a situation where prejudice and anti-Semitism will encroach on those facts.”
To fight this trend, what happened must be acknowledged, stories and memories of those that died and survived must be preserved. We must learn from the past, even though it is painful.
“Remembrance is our eternal duty, but remembrance without action risks becoming an empty ritual,” said President Joe Biden in this year’s Proclamation of Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust 2022.
To ensure that the stories of the survivors didn’t die with them, organizations like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jewish Telegraph Agency have collected the stories of the survivors and made them available for the public to view. Organizations are are also fighting Holocaust denial online, the Claims Conference battles anti-Semitism with their #NoDenyingIt digital campaign.
It is through teaching and learning that a horror like the Holocaust doesn’t happen again.
In a speech delivered during a special session of the United Nations General Assembly on January 24, 2005, Wiesel said “As a teacher I always believe in questions, the question is, ‘Will the world ever learn?’”