The importance of remembering Auschwitz and D-Day


Just went to Starbucks in the middle of my work day — because I’m all about walking around as a powerful aspect of productivity — and the line was about 30 feet long. I decided to wait regardless, although there is a Jamba Juice adjacent, and that could have been a better play. (Missed opportunities.) I’m standing on the line and eventually I get to the point where the newspaper rack is next to me, but I’m not all about being at the order counter yet, so I grab the top newspaper and start browsing. There’s an article about the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, specifically this article, which notes this right near the top:

A decade ago, 1,500 Holocaust survivors traveled to Auschwitz to mark the 60th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation. On Tuesday, for the 70th anniversary, organizers are expecting 300, the youngest in their 70s.

“In 10 years there might be just one,” said Zygmunt Shipper, an 85-year-old survivor who will attend the event in southern Poland to pay homage to the millions killed by the Third Reich. In recent years, Shipper has been traveling around Britain to share his story with school groups, hoping to reach as many people as he can while he has the strength.

This is a concern. Here’s why. 

Now look at these stats about D-Day: on the anniversary last June, 1 million D-Day veterans were alive. In about nine years, on the next major anniversary, about 81,000 will be, give or take.

There’s this long-held argument that maybe the millennial generation is spoiled or lacking work ethic or broader global understanding because they’re basically the first generation in 3-4 not to live through a major war in some way; I guess Boomers didn’t technically live through a World War either (because the term implies they were born post-WW2), but they often came of age around Vietnam and their parents may have directly served. You see that less with millennials, and you’ll see that even less with the children of millennials.

(This is all at a broad scale; obviously people still serve in the military and then have children, and that changes some context.)

So think about this:

  • People who experienced Auschwitz and can speak to the memories and context = dwindling
  • People who experienced D-Day and can do the same = dwindling
  • Greatest Generation = graying

Now think about this broader idea: in schools, the focus is often on testing in core subjects, like math and language arts. A good teacher can and should weave history into language arts — it’s only natural — but I taught for a couple of years, and I can tell you I didn’t always find a way to integrate it.

So here you have a bunch of things coming together directly:

  • The last people that can first-hand speak about some of the moments that shaped America and, frankly, the whole world — they’re aging and, within 10-20 years, dying out.
  • These lessons maybe aren’t fully permeating at the school/education level.
  • In the grand scope of history, these atrocities happened what, 70-80 years ago at most? That’s a grain of sand in historical terms.
  • We need a way to make sure what happened is remembered and told all the way down the line.

One of the more prominent convos I had with my dad growing up was him telling me that Eisenhower brought an AP photographer to Auschwitz (or maybe another concentration camp; I don’t entirely remember) because he thought that “years later, someone will claim this didn’t happen.” I wrote about that once a little bit here.

I feel like I spent a good portion of this post creating a doomsday situation, and some commenter (assuming any readers) will come by and say “Keeping the memory alive is the job of books!” It is. Yes. But doesn’t a generational shift without proper storytelling and context scare anyone else?

(Side note: my in-laws actually visited Auschwitz over Christmas — yes, people do that — which maybe wasn’t the best idea, but eh. They said it was a powerful experience, but not everyone has the resources to get there and experience it themselves, obviously.)

Ted Bauer