Comparing the Holocaust to any other event, whether it’s the carnage in Syria or the harrowing plight of refugees, can be a “touchy subject,” said Nicole Pines Lieberman, a leader in New York Next Generation, a group of young leaders and philanthropists sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
“On the one hand, nothing is comparable to the Holocaust,” Lieberman, 33, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors on both sides of her family and a Holocaust educator herself told The Jewish Week. “Yet, on the other hand, the message of Holocaust education and remembrance is that something like this should never happen again — and if we don’t want it to happen to us, it should never happen to anyone.”
For that very reason, the Next Generation group strives for a balance in who it invites to speak at its annual events, slating a Holocaust survivor or scholar one year while scheduling a victim of genocide or tyranny the next, Lieberman said.
But linking the Holocaust to current events may be precisely what’s needed to keep that history relevant for a younger generation of Jews, said Michael Berenbaum, who helped create the Washington-based museum and is now an academic at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
That linkage was certainly drawn last month at a Next Generation event at The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers, where about 200 people heard Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist and human-rights activist who was jailed by Iranian authorities after he returned to the country in 2009 to cover the Green Movement for Newsweek.
Bahari’s odyssey actually began decades earlier, even before the Iranian revolution in 1979, while growing up as the son of political dissidents under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. His family suffered under both regimes, with the Shah’s government jailing his father and the current Islamic regime locking up his late sister. In 1988, though, he immigrated to Canada, where he learned for the first time about anti-Semitism and the full history of the Holocaust, he told Next Generation members.
That education and his status as a refugee motivated Bahari to make a documentary about the S.S. St. Louis, the ocean-liner that carried more than 900 Jewish refugees from Germany to North America in 1939 only to be turned back to Europe. He also continued to follow developments in Iran, to which he returned nine years ago to cover the Green Movement, the protests that broke out following a presidential election that many Iranians thought was fraudulent.
During that period, Bahari recounted, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrested him and jailed him for 118 days, placing him in solitary confinement for 107 days. Like others jailed at the time, he was charged with endangering the nation’s security, said Bahari, whose story later became the subject of “Rosewater,” the 2014 feature film directed and written by Jon Stewart. But his “interrogations grew more bizarre every day,” revealing his jailers’ obsession with all things Israeli and Jewish.
“I already knew that the Iranian regime was obsessed with Israel — how much it hated it and how much it envied it,” said Bahari, now 50 and living in London. “But the intense interrogations” often focused on his friendship with Jews, his statements against Holocaust denial and his documentary about the S.S. Saint Louis.
Since his release, Bahari has become not only a journalist and filmmaker, but also a human-rights activist. It’s a role in which he never imagined himself, he said, but he sees it “as my duty to help those languishing in jail in Iran and other countries. When we’re surrounded by hate, we need to raise awareness about the bigotry and prejudice that are destroying generations of young people in the Middle East and around the world.”
He recently created IranWire, an online platform for Iranian citizens and professional journalists to share information about developments in Iran. He’s also worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on several projects, including a forthcoming documentary, “82 Names,” about Mansour Omari, a human-rights activist who survived imprisonment and torture in his native Syria.
“We need to make the museum’s message heard” wherever vulnerable people might be exposed to hate, whether it’s in prison, in a refugee camp or at school, Bahari said. “If we’re Iranians or Muslims, we should not be silent when a group of thugs shout ‘Jews will not replace us’ in Charlottesville (Va.), and if we’re Jews, Christians or atheists, we should not be silent when innocent Muslims are being targeted only because of their faith.”
Those words seemed to resonate with Bahari’s Next Generation audience, but one question fielded by the activist challenged him on his linkage between events in Syria and the Holocaust. Noting that the Syrian tragedy is the result of a civil war while the Holocaust was “a systematic annihilation of Jews simply because of their religion,” the audience member asked Bahari if he believed his “piggy-backing” on the Holocaust could in any way “diminish” its tragedy.
Responding to the question, Bahari said he doesn’t believe “anyone is piggy-backing on the Holocaust or saying it’s the same [as the horror in Syria].” Instead, he added, he’s trying to cull lessons from the Holocaust so that others learn from it.
Later, in an interview with The Jewish Week, Bahari said, “Learning from the plight of other people and applying it is not piggy-backing.” The Holocaust was first and foremost a Jewish experience, he continued, but it’s also a human tragedy. Iranians and Syrians looking at the Holocaust “can learn about hatred and what hatred can do to a country.”
One museum official attending the Manhattan event agreed with Bahari’s comment.
“Part of our mission from the beginning has been to inform the American public and leadership that situations around the world can lead to mass killings,” said Tad Stahnke, the museum’s director of international educational outreach. “I’ve heard the director of the museum say the museum should act as a voice for people who are being victimized in potential genocides and massacres.”
Stahnke suggested that the picture today may have been a different one if Jews during the Holocaust had had voices backing them. “The Holocaust wasn’t inevitable,” he said. “There were junctures along the way where ordinary Germans, and leaders in different countries, could have made choices [that may have averted it]. … We have a slogan we promote in our exhibit that ‘what you do matters.’”
The discussion over linking the Holocaust and other tragedies relates directly to Berenbaum’s thoughts about the challenges currently facing Holocaust museums, centers and educators.
Younger Jews today are no different from their elders in the role they accord the Holocaust in their Jewish identity, said Berenbaum, who directs American Jewish University’s Sigi Zeiring Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust. One major indication of their attitudes came in the 2013 study of American Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center, he said.
The study showed that 73 percent of Jews considered “remembering the Holocaust” an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. Among Jews 65 and older, the figure stood at 77 percent, while among Jews under 30, it stood at 69 percent.
But the younger generation learns a number of things about the Holocaust differently from its elders, Berenbaum said. His parents’ generation experienced its Jewishness “as the whole world was against us,” while younger Jews grew up in a world where Jews have been privileged and empowered. Regarding Jews as victims “doesn’t resonate very well” with the younger generation, he said.
A generation ago, Berenbaum continued, the key question among Jews was whether the Holocaust would be remembered in two or three decades. But it’s clear by now that the Holocaust will be remembered, according to the professor. “The question now is: What are we going to do with that memory?”