As astonishing as it may seem, three quarters of a century after the brutal facts of the Holocaust were laid bare before the eyes of the world, we now face an enormous battle to educate new generations about the worst genocide in the history of mankind.
It is true we have reasons to be optimistic. In the United States, the Never Again Education Act was signed into law after passing the House of Representatives with bipartisan support and the Senate by unanimous consent in May. It will ensure federal funding to expand Holocaust education across the US.
In Europe, Germany’s six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, starting this week, comes with a pledge to do more to tackle the global lack of Holocaust education. Earlier this year the country also took the chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) with the aim to counter Shoah denial and falsification.
But this is no time to be complacent. We see clearly how contemporary antisemitism is manifesting, especially online and on social media.
The Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, at Tel Aviv University, found in its annual report on Jew-hatred a significant rise in violent attacks on Jews, antisemitic discourse moving from the fringes into mainstream public discourse, and notably a diminishing level of understanding about the Holocaust in Germany.
This hatred is growing globally on the far-right as well as the hard-left, and even the Covid pandemic has been used as a vehicle for antisemitic conspiracy theories and claims that Jews create and spread deadly diseases.
Last month we saw attacks on two Jewish statues in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, with acid poured on a monument to the Vilna Gaon – the Talmudic scholar who lived in the city in the 18th century – and similar desecration of a sculpture of Zemah Szabad – a Jewish physician and public figure who served as chair of ORT in Vilnius in the 1930s.
Sadly at ORT we know only too well the threat posed by anti-Semitism. Now a global education network driven by Jewish values and reaching 300,000 people a year in more than 30 countries, we previously operated in the most trying of circumstances under antisemitic regimes.
During the build up to the Second World War, and during the Holocaust itself, brave ORT staff organized clandestine schools within ghettoes in Poland and Lithuania and in internment camps in France. After half of our students from the ORT school in Berlin managed to escape to Britain in 1939, their classmates and teachers who could not get out continued their education at the heart of Nazi Germany until 1943. Tragically around 100 students and educators were ultimately transported to Auschwitz.
After the war ORT ran a substantial vocational training programme in Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany, Austria, Italy and many other countries, helping the refugees and survivors who had fled Nazi oppression.
Remembering that time, and educating the world about it, has always remained a mission close to our hearts.
ORT’s Music and the Holocaust website is the world’s leading resource on the topic. Bringing to life the story of what happened to music in Europe between 1933 and 1945, it delves into the history of pieces created in concentration camps and ghettoes throughout the Jewish world. And it charts the fates of hundreds of musicians, composers and performers.
Under the inspirational guidance of British philanthropist Clive Marks OBE, who has lectured on the subject for decades, the site has assisted hundreds of thousands of teachers and students the world over as they seek to deepen their understanding of this period.
But now it is time to do even more, to urge others to work with us to ensure that as new generations are called on to learn about and teach the lessons of the Holocaust, the subject remains at the forefront of global education.
As CEO of the World Jewish Congress I worked closely with UNESCO on a website which seeks to make clear the facts of the Holocaust. I would encourage UNESCO now to adopt the Music and the Holocaust site and bring it too to a greater audience at this challenging time.
During my time at the WJC we also instigated the We Remember campaign, a digital initiative which runs alongside the annual Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations and promotes the importance of Holocaust education. In 2019, the campaign reached more than two billion people worldwide.
However there is much still to do. The disagreements in Britain over the siting of the planned Holocaust Memorial and Roman Abramovich’s generous multi-million pound donation to the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum mean the issue is regularly in the news.
In many parts of the world, including Latin America, Asia and Africa, this could not be further from the truth. With no Holocaust education in the national curricula, and often no prominent advocates on the subject, the re-emergence and growth of antisemitism remains difficult to tackle.
This is why ORT is now encouraging governments around the world to make Holocaust education part of their national curricula. We owe it to the memory of the millions who were killed to continue telling their stories, to keep educating new generations, and to ensure the lessons of the past are used in the ongoing fight against contemporary antisemitism.
Robert Singer is Chair of the Board of Trustees of World ORT