Holocaust education is a desperately important, profoundly disturbing and complex mission for all the world. All of us need to think about the very many issues it raises – the local and the universal, the specific and the more general. Memory of the Holocaust includes both the names of particular individuals who are known to have been dragged out of their homes and murdered, and also an understanding of the historical processes which brought about this massive catastrophe. Embedded in Holocaust education should be both the empirical facts of the deliberate, systematic, and planned rationality of deportation and mass murder, and also, at the same time, the attempt to communicate the essential incomprehensibility and meaninglessness of Auschwitz and the entire genocidal enterprise. There are many other issues besides. It is not easy to tell this story. Using smooth documentary narratives to describe the genocidal violence may end up obscuring the utter disorientation it created among the victims, especially as recounted by survivors. In short, merging all these wide-ranging and possibly contradictory aspects into appropriate educational and memorial programmes has been a huge challenge for our generation, and will remain so for generations yet to come.
So it is encouraging to see how Holocaust museums devoted to this complex mission have sprung up around the world. Some of those places may be far away from where the events of the Holocaust actually happened, but the broader issues that the Holocaust raises are relevant and indeed of serious concern to very many people today, wherever they may be. It is therefore surely to be welcomed that a Holocaust museum has been established in Porto. Portugal was a neutral country during the Second World War and was not occupied by Nazi Germany. But it was able to receive many tens of thousands of refugees, most of whom transited the country on their way across the Atlantic to other parts of the world, and thereby survive the war. Recognizing the importance of Holocaust education, Portugal has now joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and so has committed itself to the mission of communicating its significance for the young generations born long after the war. They can now benefit from the opportunity to learn about what was happening elsewhere in Europe in those dark times – and the nature of the oppressive regimes and murderous terror that those refugees were fleeing from. The new Holocaust museum in Porto, opened in 2021 under the auspices of the local Jewish community, makes a valuable contribution to this effort. It is a praiseworthy example of disseminating the profound importance to contemporary society of Holocaust memory, even in a country that was far away from the genocide.
The Holocaust museum in Porto, like many of those other Holocaust museums, emphasizes Auschwitz and the central role it played during the Holocaust. Indeed, Auschwitz was the largest German concentration camp and the single largest place of Jewish victimhood during the Holocaust (at about one million). It was also the most international. Auschwitz victims were deported there from just about every German-occupied country in Europe, including Jews from Norway in the north, and from the Greek islands in the south. In addition to the Jewish victims (about 92% of the total), there were large numbers of other ethnic and cultural minorities, including Christian victims: about 75,000 ethnic Poles, 20,000 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies), and 15,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war, as well as smaller numbers of homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, were also murdered in Auschwitz. During the war Auschwitz was located within the borders of Germany’s Third Reich, but today it is in Poland, and since 1947 the Polish Ministry of Culture has taken on the responsibility of maintaining the site of the former camp as a museum and memorial.
Shortly after the transition to democracy in Poland in 1989, the Ministry of Culture established the International Auschwitz Council, to advise it on the appropriate direction that the museum and memorial ought to take on specific issues. I was invited to join the Council as a founding member, and went on to serve there for twenty-three years, giving me the privilege to witness at first hand debates on numerous difficult and controversial issues that the Council had to resolve. For example, in 1996 we had to deal with a request from Elie Wiesel, undoubtedly Auschwitz’s most famous Jewish survivor, who accused the Polish authorities of antisemitism for tolerating the introduction of a series of large wooden crosses by a Polish student group in the 1980s in a remote field in Birkenau. Wiesel insisted that they be removed. The Council agreed to his request, though not unanimously. But the decision had the unintended consequence of the museum additionally removing a series of large wooden Stars of David that the students had also erected in that field. The museum understood the Council as urging the need to avoid all conspicuous religious symbols on the site. In another example, once it had been agreed to remove the old Communist-era inscriptions on the main monument (also in Birkenau), which referred – quite incorrectly – to the vastly inflated figure of four million Auschwitz victims, it was left to the Council to propose a new text for these multilingual inscriptions; and several sessions of the Council in the 1990s were devoted to lengthy discussions of a new text which would respect a wide range of sentiments. The Council also supported the steady internationalization of the work and activities of the Auschwitz museum and memorial, including collaboration with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem along with Jewish and non-Jewish organizations worldwide. In short, those discussions and debates made it very clear that the multi-layered, multi-dimensional meanings and messages of Auschwitz, however these may be defined, relate not only to Poland but to all of humanity – and not only to survivors but to today’s youth, born long after the war.
These, then, are the realities. I salute the Jewish community of Porto and its Holocaust museum for its willingness to address the highly complex challenges of Holocaust remembrance; and I wish it well in its work and activities.
Many have said (or at least used to say) that the key message of Auschwitz is “Never Again”. What this must surely mean is a commitment to restore justice, moral decency, and ethical integrity to humanity, in a context also of intercultural respect and dialogue. Learning from the horrors of the evil and inhumanity of what happened during the Holocaust means to take on such a commitment – that the mission of Holocaust memory, and indeed its central message, is to promote goodness, love, and compassion. Perhaps it is a paradox, but (in the words of a Polish former secretary of the International Auschwitz Council) maybe it is through contact with the kingdom of death that people can find the meaning and purpose of life.