Remember the people, not just the atrocities

January 28, 2021 by Natan Sharansky
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On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, everyone around the world—individuals, leaders, communities—gather to reinforce their commitment to honor the memory of the victims of the darkest hour of human history.

Head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, seen during an interview with the press at his office in Jerusalem. September 12, 2013. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90

But while the world bows its head to commemorate the Holocaust, it often remembers its victims as a unified collective. The very day we commemorate the victims, Jan. 27, marks the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the ultimate symbol of the Nazi terror. But not all Holocaust victims were sent to concentration camps. Far from it. The time has come to tell the all-encompassing story of the Holocaust.

Behind the monstrous number of “six million victims” stand six million individual life stories. To commemorate the Holocaust means remembering each and every one of those individually. We are committed to telling as many stories as possible, but unfortunately, too many of them remain unknown.

How many life stories will never be known after the massacre in Ukraine’s Babi Yar ravine? Within two days, the Nazis brutally murdered 33,771 Jewish men, women and children. By the end of the war, they murdered 100,000 people, including Ukrainians and gypsies.

The Babi Yar massacre destroyed the Jewish community in Kyiv. The Jews of Riga, Minsk and Vilnius encountered the same tragic fate—murdered in ravines. Some 1.5 million Jews lost their lives that way.

The central chapter of the Nazi’s “final solution” is still largely unknown. As I know from bitter experience, the Soviet regime after World War II did everything possible to erase Jewish identity and the memory of the Holocaust from collective memory.

The Soviet worldview rejected all national, ethnic and religious affiliation. And so, they described the Babi Yar massacre as a crime against the Soviet people and literally buried the truth by building highways, apartment buildings and even a stadium on top of Europe’s largest mass grave. They even tried to turn the area into a landfill.

Even though as an independent country Ukraine is trying to right this injustice, Babi Yar continues to evade the historical narrative. A recent survey conducted by the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya found that only a third of Israelis aged 18-29 know that the massacre took place during the Holocaust; 75 per cent of respondents in Israel said they felt like the memory of the Holocaust was fading away.

The time has come to reinstate the balance. We are running out of time, as commemorating the Holocaust gets more and more challenging as the number of Holocaust survivors who witnessed the incomparable evil decreases each year.

Fortunately, significant efforts are being invested in ensuring that the victims of Babi Yar and other ravines in Eastern Europe make it into the history books.

A world-class museum is being set up at the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre, whose supervisory board I head. Virtual history and education projects are already underway. New names of victims have been revealed, and details of their lives restored. Previously unknown stories were revealed of Ukrainians who helped save the lives of their Jewish neighbours.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Day is an opportunity to weigh how we remember humanity’s inconceivable deterioration to evil. All of us around the world pledge “never again,” and we mean it.

However, if we truly want to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, we must first know our history. It begins with the understanding that the Holocaust did not begin and end in Auschwitz. There are countless other Holocaust stories to tell. Now is the time to preserve and retell all of them.

Natan Sharansky is an Israeli politician, human rights activist and former chairman of the Jewish Agency.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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