This week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, an event capped worldwide by “Holocaust Remembrance Day.” Sadly, however, a survey conducted by the Claims Council of the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany in 2018 suggests that 41% of Americans — including two-thirds of millennials, ages 18-34 — do not know what happened at Auschwitz.
In the same survey, 31% of Americans believed only 2 million Jews were killed by Nazis, while 45% surveyed could not name even one of the extermination and concentration camps and ghettos scattered across Europe during World War II. Further, 81% of Americans have never visited a Holocaust museum. A 2020 survey suggests 57 percent of French citizenry do not know 6 million Jews died during the Holocaust — a number that jumps to 69 percent among millennials and Gen Z respondents.
Here in Texas such ignorance need not be the case: In Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Austin and San Antonio you’ll find excellent Holocaust museums. Closest to us is the Dallas Holocaust Museum for Education and Tolerance in the heart of the downtown district (235 W. Jefferson). There you can read searing stories of more than 125 Texans who survived Hitler’s camps. And every year you can attend a Holocaust Remembrance Service sponsored by the Greater Waco Interfaith Council.
Although the horrors of the Holocaust are unfathomable in scope, reverberations of these anti-Semitic nightmares have arisen in our own times. In the last few years, wave after wave of anti-Semitic attack has swept across the globe. In our country, attacks on a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a Jewish community center in Missouri have left Jewish Americans gripped with anxiety. Some now lower their voice or hide their religious identity when moving through our society. Some express concern their children and grandchildren grow up in an America of increasing intolerance.
This past Friday I took some Baylor University students to Waco’s Temple Rodef Shalom for Shabbat services. Then Sunday, with a few more students, I attended the annual World Religion Day service where a Jewish speaker spoke of his passionate love for Judaism and his beloved Texas. Students at both events recounted how welcome they felt. One told me that he marveled how, as Jesus was also Jewish, he probably worshiped similarly as those gathered around the Torah scrolls before us.
Another student told me that she was surprised to learn that Jews have been in Waco since its founding and that a synagogue has been standing in one place or another in our community for more than a century. Indeed, our Jewish neighbors have built strong businesses and served Waco in countless ways, often without recognition.
As anti-Semitism begins to re-infect our politics and society, those of us in Waco must stand in solidarity with our Jewish neighbors. We must forge bridges of mutual respect between those who are proudly Jewish and the rest of our community. Each of us must find fresh ways to ensure that evil impulses driving the Holocaust remain in the past and never be allowed to take root in modern times. Each of us must display zero tolerance toward expressions of anti-Semitism or any other religious or culturally based demagoguery. And that my require some raw courage.
As America becomes more polarized by political rhetoric of disdain for others and inflamed by strident voices of xenophobia, each of us should stand with an “opposite spirit.” Working within our relational networks, each of us should strive, in the words of the ancient Jewish prophet of scripture, to “do justice” against all forms of anti-Semitism, live with “loving mercy” toward our Jewish neighbors and, together with them, “walk humbly before our God.”
A. Christian van Gorder is associate professor of world religions and Islamic studies at Baylor University. He worked several years for a Dutch human rights organization serving persecuted Christians based in the Netherlands. His books include “Islam, Peace and Social Justice.”