When Forgetting Is Unforgivable

Nearly half of the adults in Great Britain claim they have never heard of Auschwitz.

This was the shocking result of a BBC audience research survey related to a new TV series produced to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

“We were amazed by the results of our audience research,” said series producer Laurence Rees. “It’s easy to presume that the horrors of Auschwitz are engrained in the nation’s collective memory, but obviously this is not the case.”

The survey found that almost half of Britain’s adults (45 percent) claim they never even heard of Auschwitz. Among people under 35, the figure soared to 60 percent. And among those who had heard of the infamous concentration camp, 70 percent said they did not know much about it.

A revealing corollary surfaced in another survey by the History channel, which asked 1,000 britons to name the most significant events in world history. Twenty-two percent named the day Princess Diana died. Only 8 percent opted for the end of World War II, and 12 percent cited England’s World Cup soccer victory in 1966.

Of all the killing stations Adolf Hitler established to facilitate his “final solution to the Jewish problem,” Auschwitz, in Poland, was the most notorious. It is estimated that 1 million to 3 million people, about 90 percent of them Jewish, were exterminated there.

Among the most poignant cries still echoing from this dungeon of death are the letters of the children. Before little Liliane Gerenstein was killed, she wrote to God:

God? How good you are, how kind and if one had to count the number of goodnesses and kindnesses You have done, one would never finish….God? It is thanks to You that I had a beautiful life before, that I was spoiled, that I had lovely things that others do not have. God? After that, I ask you one thing only: Make my parents come back, my poor parents protect them (even more than you protect me) so that I can see them again as soon as possible.

On April 6, 1944, the Nazis seized Liliane Gerenstein and others; threw the crying, terrified children onto trucks bound for Auschwitz; and there killed them all.

“The name Auschwitz is quite rightly a byword for horror,” Laurence Rees stated. “but the problem with thinking about horror is that we naturally turn away from it. Our series is not only about the shocking, almost unimaginable pain of those who died, or survived, Auschwitz. It’s about how the Nazis came to do what they did.”

On January 27, 1945, Russian troops liberated Auschwitz, but not before the Nazis attempted to kill or deport any who might be left to tell the dreadful story of their suffering.

How can people barely a generation away from the events of World War II choose to know so little? Yes, choose, because their ignorance is a choice.

It is the choice of the educational system on both sides of the Atlantic. The West buries the grim realities of historical atrocities beneath a gloss of contemporary superficiality. Our obsession to pursue pleasure and venerate pop culture icons, such as Princess Diana, rock stars, Hollywood luminaries, and sports idols, have clouded our thinking—especially when it relates to lessons from the past that should not be forgotten. Unfortunately, many do not want to remember and thus are condemned to experience reruns of the horrific.

Both the Old and New Testaments solemnly warn about the consequences of failing to communicate history’s lessons to the next generation. These Biblical injunctions are not the mutilations of revisionist docudrama. They are fact.

The era of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the extermination of millions of innocent Jewish people and others is an extremely obvious example of why we must teach the truth. That 45 percent of a nation’s population can say it never heard of Auschwitz is a dreadful commentary on how far we have fallen.

Fortunately, there are those who do remember and burn with a desire to enshrine in the minds and hearts of people living today the memory of those who failed to survive. Tears still well up in the eyes of those who languished in the squalor of the camps and watched as friends, loved ones, and neighbors wasted away or were fed to the ovens. The desire for truth is heard in the voices of veterans, now dying at the rate of thousands a day, who urge us to keep alive the memory of what they saw in 1945.

To forget is unforgivable. Sixty, or perhaps only six, years from now, how many Americans will say they never heard of September 11, 2001?

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