We learn history — the good and the bad parts of it — so we can use that knowledge to improve the future. We can avoid mistakes made by our predecessors, and we can build upon the successes they achieved. History allows us to start every move we make several steps ahead of ground zero. It allows us to continually advance society and steadily make way for a better world. As follows, these lessons are something we need to cherish and protect.
In elementary, middle and high school, many of us had the honor and privilege to hear Holocaust survivors speak about their experiences. They would share harrowing accounts of living in fear and hiding in attics and swamps. They would detail the horrors of ghettos and concentration camps. They would share the utter heartbreak and agony felt when losing a loved one or watching their friends and neighbors get carted away, knowing they’ll never be seen again. They would describe the despair they felt when realizing they may never return to their home again — at least not the home they once knew.
These personal accounts became essential components of our historical education. Their stories provided something that could not have been learned through a textbook, something that couldn't have been felt through memorizing dates and names and death tolls. They provided something unique and powerful.
Eva Schloss, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp and the stepsister to Holocaust victim Anne Frank, is one of the brave people sharing her story with the U.S. According to The Washington Post, the 88-year-old is “diving into everything from cutting-edge hologram technology to controversies about Justin Bieber to keep people thinking about the lessons of the Holocaust.”
On her U.S. speaking tour, Schloss has warned her audiences about the dangers of being a bystander. She explains not everyone in Germany was anti-Semitic, nor did they all support Hitler. Many Germans had good Jewish friends but, as Schloss put it, “they took the easy way out.” She leaves her audience with an invaluable lesson: to avoid indifference and to speak out when you see injustice being done.
Schloss is just one example of the many Holocaust survivors who speak to audiences and teach history in a way that far exceeds that which can be found on the pages on a book. Unfortunately, as time goes on, the number of survivors who are still alive is diminishing quickly. In January 2017, it was estimated that only 100,000 survivors were still alive in the U.S. In 2018, the number is likely far less.
Efforts have been put in place to preserve the life and knowledge of the few survivors left. Schloss is part of a new project by the Steven Spielberg-founded Shoah Foundation, which has recorded nearly 52,000 interviews with Nazi-era survivors. As published in the Post, the interviews are used to create life-size holograms that are able to answer questions and share stories — something necessary as the number of survivors decreases.
Projects like these offer us a glimmer of hope in terms of preservation, but there are also steps we can take personally to ensure these stories stand the test of time.
We need to take the lessons, like the ones Schloss provides in her speeches, to heart. We need to live our lives according to the warnings we’ve received. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to hear from survivors firsthand need to make sure their stories live on and are heard by future generations. We need to make sure these people are real — not just names in a textbook or faceless people lumped under the inclusive label, “victims of the Holocaust.”
This goes for all parts of history, especially genocides and other heinous events — not just the Holocaust. The further removed we become from history, the less real it becomes and the less serious we take it. This is what we need to avoid. We have a responsibility now more than ever to prioritize historical education.