The Choices We Make: What the Holocaust Demands of Us

It is no secret that today the discrimination against different religions, races, and sexualities are dangerous to those victimized, but also to our society. The study of the Holocaust is meant to bring understanding to each generation and awareness of the issues that affect us the most. Since the end of the Second World War, historians and scholars have approached the Holocaust from every which way, focusing on the concerns of the times, but continuing to thread the tapestry of the atrocities committed. The evolution of the studies of the Holocaust studies has brought us different methods with which to examine past downfalls of society, nuancing our current task of self-reflection and cultural awareness so that we may avoid the future demise of valuable lives.

The study of the Holocaust has had great cultural influence on the post-war political climate beyond Germany’s borders. It is important to study these events, the sources that came out of it, and the interpretations offered by scholars. The study of the Holocaust has evolved over time, changing the way in which this catastrophe has been interpreted since 1945. Each shift focuses on the most pressing matters of the day. Immediately after World War II, the black-and-white testimonies of the perpetrators and victims were important in determining what happened during the years of mass murder; in the 1960s the focus shifted to civil rights, that is one of race and civil liberties; the feminist movement of the 1970s obliged scholars to look at the experiences of women, bringing with it the question of homosexuality. Today’s culture continues to struggle with these themes of race and sexuality, suggesting scholars must now focus on the interconnection between them. The significance of the Holocaust, and its subsequent studies, fluidly shifts to highlight the most politically and culturally significant issues facing quotidian society.

The study of the Holocaust implies there are multiple directions from which to approach the topic. The different avenues scholars use to gain access to insights offer perspectives from different angles which add to our understanding of the narrative. Each form of evidence has value to offer, and the pieces that are missing are quickly and effectively addressed in the next form. Oral history can reveal uncensored memories, but can fall victim to guided questions; art, in the form of poetry and sketches, depicts the importance of certain events and the emotions that accompany them, but lacks detail; diary entries offer the perspective of individuals, but not likely the experience of the whole; and biographies allow scholars to analyze the personal agency of perpetrators, but run the risk of skirting the line between understanding and empathy. If we follow suit by applying these methods, we can answer the questions that arise from previous perceptions of ourselves and our society.

The most important aspect of the study of the Holocaust is its demand for self-reflection and awareness of the political and cultural situations surrounding us. Assessing our own values allows us to make decisions based in history, critical thinking, and willingness to change. The decisions that bred the possibility of the Holocaust were made by individuals like Hitler, his subordinates (Gauleiters, Himmler, and Heydrich), and the members of the public they claimed to help with the regulations they implemented. The choice to be a bystander existed, as well as the choice to not do anything that might jeopardize one’s safety. Within the camps, choices were available; however, none of the choices were optimal and were usually dependent on saving oneself or another. Holocaust studies demands we adapt to our current societal dilemmas by looking at situations from every angle and making choices based on the outcome we covet. It was ordinary people who made the decisions that fostered discrimination; and it is ordinary people who must be willing to make the decisions that will nurture acceptance.

Featured Image: Irving Heymont. German civilians help evacuate survivors from the Schwandorf death train. April 1945 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.

A special thanks to Nichole Neff and Lucas Jones for helping me edit this one sentence at a time.

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