As many as 100,000 Jews who survived the Nazi Holocaust are alive today in the United States. But most are now in their 70s or 80s, and about 10% of them are dying each year. Many historians and educators are concerned that a living historical record is being lost.
That is why Walter Reich teaches a course called Holocaust Memory at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Professor Reich, the former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, says many students come into his class having little knowledge about the Jewish Holocaust from their high school studies. "I would assess it as being good in some places and less good in other places and nonexistent in still other places," he says. "Sometimes it's presented in school as part of the history of World War II and sometimes presented by itself."
Walking around campus, it was clear that knowledge of the Holocaust varied from student to student.
One looked back on her second year in high school. "I learned about Auschwitz and Anne Frank and all those people," she said. "It's tragic and terrifying. To learn about that -- when I come from a small town where nothing bad happens, no crime happens -- it's overwhelming and devastating."
Another student agreed that "we learned it in school." But he added, "certain people don't care…certain people don't listen."
"I don't really know about it too much, but it is definitely a sad thing - like slavery," said a third student. "Being an African American, I can definitely relate, just in terms of history -- in terms of what African Americans had to endure here in the United States. Probably, it would be better for more individuals to learn about it more, just knowing the history, showing the type of evil that could occur."
To a fourth student, the Holocaust "actually didn't sink in until I saw Schindler's List a couple of years ago," referring to Steven Spielberg's 1993 film about a German businessman during World War II who turned his factory into a refuge for Jews. "Being a Jew and being American in general, learning about those things at a young age…it gets your mind thinking about things like Rwanda and other genocides, because it's our obligation to remember those things."
George Washington Professor Walter Reich says most Americans learn about the Holocaust from movies and television. "Not by reading books, not by going to museums," he says. "Those movies and those television programs are sometimes really quite good and sometimes really quite bad and quite misleading. And that's a major problem. If many are trivializing, inaccurate, or exploitative, then that's a problem."
Still, Mr. Reich credits American television with educating the general public -- specifically, a drama titled Holocaust that aired in 1978. "It told an important story, an important narrative about what actually happened," he says. "In fact, it formed and created the consciousness of the Holocaust for many people in this country. It was very powerful, very important."
Before the airing of that television movie, Mr. Reich says few Americans spoke about the Holocaust. Instead, survivors of the Nazi horror "were told when they tried to talk about it, just to shut up," he says. "They were told, 'Nobody wants to hear your troubles…get on with life, get past it.'" These were people, he says, who "invariably lost entire families in gas chambers and execution pits, and they were told to 'get past it.'"
One motivation for keeping alive the memories of the Holocaust is to make sure such horrors are never again be visited on the Jewish people -- or any other people. Mr. Reich points out that, of course, they already have: in Cambodia in the 1970's and Rwanda in the 1990's.
"The great pity of it all is that it's always 'Never again,'" he says. "That is the great sorrow of humanity. The only chance we have is pointing to the past. It hasn't worked so far -- otherwise we would have no more 'Never agains.' But it's the best chance we have."
Walter Reich keeps a black-and-white photograph that he calls the most powerful image of the Holocaust that he knows of. The photo shows Jewish prisoners walking slowly toward a gas chamber at Auschwitz.
"This photograph was hanging on the wall of the Holocaust Museum, much enlarged, when I was its director," says Mr. Reich. "A woman came into the museum and she looked at the photograph. She said, 'That's me with my mother and my baby.' She went over to the picture and started caressing the image of the baby and said, 'This is the only image I have of my baby.'"
Walter Reich believes that -- just as the photograph reminded the woman of her encounter with evil many years ago -- public remembrances of the Holocaust can warn new generations of the destructive power of hate and tyranny.