May 26, 2024
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The Media’s Role in Holocaust Awareness

Jews are increasingly the target of and hate and violence, even as memories of the horrors of the Holocaust fade and ignorance about what led to the murder of six million Jews rises, particularly among young people.

However, the media has a unique ability and powerful shaping influence to raise awareness about the growing crisis of antisemitism, and prevent future genocides, said Maureen J. Reidy, president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media.

Reidy made her remarks January 27 during a virtual program by the Paley Center—formerly the Museum of Television and Radio—entitled “The Media’s Role in Helping Us Talk About the Holocaust,” part of the museum’s ongoing series about confronting antisemitism. The program, which took place on International Holocaust Memorial Day commemorating the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, was moderated by Jim Axelrod, a Highland Park native and chief investigative and senior national correspondent for CBS News.

He noted that the need to continue to stress the lessons of the Holocaust were made obvious six days earlier during the hostage situation at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where the assailant cited the antisemitic trope that Jews control the world. The day before a school board in Tennessee had banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus.”

Those on the panel spoke of the role local and social media can have in influencing the discussion of the Holocaust. Maria Zalewska, the executive director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, said in recent years social media has become a platform for Holocaust education, and “anyone with a smartphone can participate in the process of Holocaust memory,” rather than government and education institutions, as in years past.

However, the opposite perspective works as well. “We suddenly have a platform for Holocaust deniers to share their lies,” said Zalewska. She praised a new initiative by the World Jewish Congress, UNESCO and TikTok to offer comprehensive Holocaust resources to the global community by directing users to a fact-based website whenever they seek information.

Calling the new world of social media “uncharted territory,” Zalewska said she was initially horrified by young people taking selfies at Auschwitz, but her students told her it was their way of archiving their presence at a specific location, and didn’t see it as a transgression.

“We dread this notion of a world without survivors and eyewitnesses,” she said, adding that the pandemic has sped up what may take the place of firsthand accounts as living survivors are replaced with virtual reality, holograms of actual survivors speaking of their horrific experiences, tours of places significant to the Holocaust and augmented reality apps.

Former Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, whose father was a federal prosecutor who became executive counsel at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, said there was “a constant diet” of discussions about the circumstances surrounding the Holocaust at the family’s dining room table, including how a civilized and educated country “accepted and received this monster, Adolf Hitler.” His father always told his family, “Don’t ever believe the people in Germany didn’t know what was going on.” The Dodd Center for Human Rights at the University of Connecticut is dedicated to his father.

Dodd pointed out that despite the Nazi atrocities there were many at the time who were critical of the Nuremberg trials, calling them a waste of time and jurisprudence. Yet they provided indisputable evidence for future generations. “We have places now where the truth exists,” said Dodd, who has donated his father’s papers to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Even though the trials laid out the facts in great detail, he lamented there are still those who deny it happened.

“Imagine today with fake news what would have happened if we hadn’t had the evidence?” asked Dodd, who encouraged local reporters to counter the deniers “at that school board meeting” so “we don’t allow that lie to persist day after day.”

Dodd added: “We’re living in a time where there is an assault on facts and the legitimization of the questioning of the way the narratives have been told, which creates a challenge for those of us dedicated to telling the hard truth about history, particularly about this chapter of history.”

He noted that a narrow majority believes Hitler came to power through force when he was actually elected, and people need to hear that.

He challenged the media to call out those who use Holocaust terminology to compare vaccine mandates and being forced to take math to the suffering of Shoah victims because left unchallenged, “it becomes a fact in people’s minds. Too often at the local level we have reporters that don’t understand it well,” explained Dodd.

Doron Krakow, president and CEO of the JCC Association of North America, also touched on the subject of misrepresentations about the Holocaust in an effort by various sources to be the “most gratuitous. the loudest and most dramatic.” The use of Holocaust terminology and references taken out of context demeans “the memory of those who suffered in the middle part of the last century in what was a unique and singular event,” he stated.

“The media is our interpreter for life as it is unfolding in front of us, and I think an elevated understanding would enhance their ability to spread the message responsibly,” said Krakow.

Panelists stressed that education through media and schools is a key component to stop hate and Holocaust denial.

Author and Auschwitz survivor Michael Bornstein often speaks to young people around the country about his experience as a 4-year-old inmate dressed in prisoner clothes suffering such severe starvation his hair fell out and he was forced to rummage through garbage for moldy potato peels. His father and older brother were killed at the camp.

“Basically I think about the smell at Auschwitz, the burning flesh smell,” he said. Holding up a copy of the book “Survivors Club” that he authored with his daughter, Bornstein said he tells kids not to bully others and “to stand up for the truth.”

“Getting information to the media is extremely important,” said Bornstein. “But it’s also important for schools to teach Holocaust education.” New Jersey and Connecticut are among about 20 states that require Holocaust education.

Bornstein recalled a young boy in Missouri who stood up after hearing him speak and told him he had never before met a Jewish person, but after hearing his story he could now see Jews were like other people—and he could love Jewish people like other people.

Dodd said it was critically important that “we make the Holocaust not a Holocaust story, but a current story.”

“The never again depends that we educate the young generation coming along,” said Dodd, and that means teaching civics to young children in schools so they understand that regardless of race, religion and ethnicity, “human beings deserve to have those rights protected, and seeing how those rights were abused decades ago makes it easier to relate to the Holocaust.”

By Debra Rubin

 

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