Remembering the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah: Learning from the Past to Protect Our Future

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People walk into the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
People line to enter the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. on June 12, 2009

Remembering the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah: Learning from the Past to Protect Our Future

The United States Congress established the “Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust” as our nation’s annual weeklong observance of the Holocaust, commencing with “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day,” or Yom HaShoah Ve-Hagevurah, as it is officially called in Hebrew.  This year, Yom HaShoah was observed from sundown April 23 to sundown April 24.

The Holocaust was history’s most extreme and violent manifestation of anti-Semitism.  Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi regime and its collaborators systematically murdered six million Jews. They also targeted other groups for persecution and murder, including Romani people, those with  disabilities, Slavs and other peoples, Soviet POWs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, LGBT individuals, and political opponents.  During the Days of Remembrance, the United States joins Israel and other countries in tribute to the heroism of Jews and in memory of the millions who were murdered.

As President Trump said in his April 25 speech at the U.S. Capitol, “We remember the survivors who bore more than we can imagine. We remember the hatred and evil that sought to extinguish human life, dignity and freedom.”  Referring to the bravery of those who sacrificed their own well-being and safety to help family members and neighbors reach freedom, he said we must “also remember the light that shone through the darkness.”  It is our duty to ensure “that humanity never, ever forgets.”

In commemorating the 74th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, we recall  the courage of Jewish civilians who resisted the Nazis in over 100 ghettos in occupied Poland and the Soviet Union;  the Jewish prisoners who attacked the  SS guards in Treblinka and Sobibór;  the Jewish partisans who fought in the forests of German-occupied Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine; and the many righteous people of other backgrounds who risked their lives to save Jews.

Regrettably, over 70 years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism has not been extinguished.  Today, anti-Semites propagate their hatred via the Internet and other mass media.  Jews remain subject to violent attacks and their synagogues and cemeteries are desecrated.  Some governments even foster belief in Jewish conspiracies, and their officials espouse hate-filled views, demonizing Jews and inciting violence against them.

We can fight anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred by ensuring that education and appropriate commemoration of the Holocaust not only preserve the eyewitness testimonies of Holocaust survivors, but also secure a more inclusive world.  Such were the goals of the Department of State’s April 20 Yom HaShoah program, which recognized the courage of Mr. Leo Melamed and Mr.  Nathan Lewin, two people who survived the Holocaust thanks to the heroism of Mr. Chiune Sugihara, Japanese Consul to Lithuania from 1939-40.  Consul Sugihara saved the lives of some 6,000 Jews and others by providing transit visas to Japan.  Lithuanian, Japanese and Israeli Embassies jointly hosted this event, which featured the film Persona Non Grata, about Consul Sugihara’s actions.  The film’s Director, Cellin Gluck, led a post-screening discussion with Mr. Lewin on the theme of the film:  “Every single one of us can make a difference.”

In addition to commemoration and education, the State Department stands together with our government allies and international partners against the scourge of anti-Semitism.  Partners include the European Commission Coordinator on Combating Antisemitism, appointed in 2015; the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  In 2016—the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)—with U.S. support, took an imperative step and passed a working definition of anti-Semitism to inform policymakers and the broader public on identifying the various forms we see today.   In 2015, the United Nations held the first high-level General Assembly meeting on anti-Semitism, and in 2016, it held a follow-on meeting.

The Department documents acts of anti-Semitism in our annual Human Rights Reports and International Religious Freedom Reports and also supports training civil society to respond to hate crimes and discrimination.  We advocate with governments to protect and preserve Jewish communities worldwide, and help judges, prosecutors, and police recognize and take practical measures to combat anti-Semitism. 

During the Days of Remembrance and throughout the year, as we honor the lives and memory of those who died as well as those who survived history’s darkest hours, we must remember that the Holocaust was not an accident of history.  It occurred because the world allowed unbridled hatred to be wielded as a political weapon to rationalize and legalize discrimination and violence against people just for being who they were.  We must remain vigilant and never again permit the normalization of discrimination and violence.  We cannot remain silent.  We must teach our youth about the perils of hatred and bigotry, and amplify the message of tolerance and inclusion.  Anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred are appalling affronts to human dignity that threaten democracy, and ultimately, our common security.


About the Author: Susan Sandler serves as the Deputy Director in the Office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues at the U.S. Department of State. 

Elise Mellinger serves as an International Relations Officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.


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Susan Sandler
Elise Mellinger