We Must Do More Than Remember

In Education, Holocaust, Home, Queens University, Social Change, Uncategorized by Amanda DeBrun4 Comments

This past week my husband watched an episode of “Finding Your Roots” hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on which all three famous people discovered new information about their Jewish heritage. Not surprisingly, each person encountered something related to the Holocaust. They found that an ancestor had emigrated to the U.S. because of the Nazi policies against the Jews or that there was a gaping hole in the record for the time period between the 1930s and the 1950s.

Very much to my surprise, my husband asked me a question prompted by this episode. He asked, “Why do people still hate the Jews so much? What have they ever done? And after the Holocaust – why is there still so much hate?”

I have been reading about, studying deeply, and teaching regularly about Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust for about 10 years now. I have attended seminars, gone on trips, and led professional development for educators. Not once has my husband asked any question other than, “How can you keep reading about all that depressing stuff?” And now he asks the most complicated question possible – the question that has been echoing through history for hundreds of years.

Year after year the memory remains, but the reason for remembering grows dimmer and dimmer, a faint echo of the urgency that existed after the tragedy.

I gave him a brief outline of the evolution of antisemitism from the earliest days of Christianity through today, and if anyone else is interested, I have a two hour presentation on this very topic. Contact me and I’ll be happy to talk with you and whomever else you like. Seriously! I truly enjoy working through this complex evolution with anyone who is ready to learn.

But, for right now, for today, for Holocaust Remembrance Day, I have something else to propose. I think I have a hint about why this question about antisemitism is still in the minds and on the lips of so many folks in our world today:

We Remember, but we fail to Reflect and Respond.

Just as with any historical tragedy, the easiest thing to do is set aside one day on which everyone posts thoughtful tributes and promises to Never Forget. That is admirable and lovely. We need to have the space and time to recognize great loss. But, far too often, that day is where we end. After the remembering has passed, we often move on quickly, knowing we will remember again next year. The marker is in place. Now its time for moving on.

There were many, many questions in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. But no one had to ask, “Why the Jews?”

Something is diminished when we follow that template. Year after year the memory remains, but the reason for remembering grows dimmer and dimmer, a faint echo of the urgency that existed after the tragedy. Immediately after the Holocaust the news of the atrocities created an open wound. The images and stories were almost too close. There were no words to help digest the raw reality of what humans had done to other humans. There were many, many questions in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. But no one had to ask, “Why the Jews?”

They knew. It had been in the newspapers, religious textbooks, on the radio, on flyers and advertisements. Jews were blamed for the economic depression, the rise of Communism, the evils of Capitalism, and assorted other social ills. Jews were feared and discriminated against in our own country at the exact same time that they were being rounded up into concentration camps by the Nazis and their collaborators. They knew. No one wanted to talk about that! The answer might implicate the “good guys.”

We do not reflect on this when we remember the Holocaust, and so we lose something very important. We lose the opportunity to bring the lessons of historic antisemitism into our present moment and respond to what we see in our society today. The Holocuast was the culmination of centuries of hatred. It was not truly a new concept except for the magnitude of human destruction and the industrialization of mass murder. The underlying hatred of Jews, Jehovahs Witnesses, LGBTQ persons, the Roma and Sinti, those with disabilites, and “the undesireables” is as old as history itself. The killing stopped, camps were liberated and the prisoners freed. But the hatred is still with us.

So, on this Internaltional Holocaust Remembrance Day, I challenge you to:

Reflect on where your community is right now in terms of prejudice and hate

Reflect on what you have to do to make your community a safe place for every single person who lives there

Reflect on how you can influence your family and friends to be part of buidling a more respectful space

and then Respond with

A plan to make one change in how you speak about or treat others

A commitment to stand up for others if you see the opportunity

A public action that shows others you are dedicated to respecting the humanity of every person

Why? Because remembering is only the beginning.


  1. Very well stated! I can only add, that after the escalating incidents of antisemitism here in the US and internationally, yes, remembering is only the beginning, but be alert for the warning signs: ethnic profiling, denigration, scapegoating, excessive nationalism, polarization, accusations of dangers by association, isolation, double standards, elimination of civil rights, denial of civil liberties, expropriation of property, denial of citizenship, no protection under the law, targeted violence, pogroms, mass incarceration, expulsion, ethnic cleansing.

    For me Charlottesville sounded an alarm! Memories of racial/ethnic/national superiority no longer lay hidden in history books, they are alive and are chanted on the lips of tiki torch parading wannabe fascist stormtroopers, who were not even alive the last time “blood & soil” was chanted en mass, at a demonstration! We look to the past to learn to be proactive and not to take the future for granted! Who would have thought that old-world, obscure epitaph would echo through out the streets of Charlottesville, VA just three years ago! That slogan was not spontaneously chanted…Nazi ideology is alive, well, and thriving!

  2. Donna,
    Thank you for this moving reflection. It articulates beautifully the imperative to act once we have considered where we can most effectively use our influence and make a positive difference.

    With admiration and appreciation,

  3. My spouse has a similar reaction of trying to protect me from the pain of honestly exploring horrifying historical cruelty. And maybe she also thinks our lives are already too hard to exert more energy being responsible citizens. I never mention to her the author Iris Chang (The Rape of Nanking- about another holocaust) and how she died under the excruciating pressure of truth-telling and the hateful reactions. She is said to have committed suicide stage 36, 16 years ago, at the zenith of her career.

    Because of my curiosity about human decency and obligation to justice I often end up feeling lonely and isolated. I have commented on your ideas before, but I remain a faceless activist, seemingly in an alien community in nearby Gaston County. Frequently I seek participation but am usually disappointed. We live at a time of rising Fascism and although I’m well read and mature I have a struggle trying to find my methods and place to oppose hatred. The best truth I’ve found is that all the world’s ills are connected by organized repression of the good in people.

    Donna Tarney, I wonder if you’ve been lucky in finding your activist community, or if you may be an uncommonly courageous and stalwart person who has carved out a unique role. My perception of you as a researcher and teacher is that you have an advanced comprehension not confined to the crimes of Nazism, but that you are able to apply your insights to various times and circumstance, especially anticipating dangers of political cruelty as we struggle with Climate Disruption and Nuclear Adventurism.

    I have an interest in being around engaged minds like yours. I hope by admitting my puzzlement with how my spouse and associates tolerate my obsession with what are sometimes forbidden topics you may recognize we have similar challenges.
    It is brave of you to offer sharing your knowledge (two hour presentation) to anyone ready to learn. When you get enough requests to make a little group let me know. My time is flexible. And if things went well I’d also like to meet your husband. He and my spouse sound similar.

    It’s easier tourists and diffuse hate when one has friends sharing the same effort.

    1. I am not sure if you will read this, as your original post was 2 years ago, but please email me for more information about a group we have that might be a good fit for you!

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