Published: Jan. 26, 2024 By

On Jan. 27, the world will come together to honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As we anticipate the observance of this day, it prompts reflections on its significance in the context of current events surrounding the Israel-Hamas war and how the commemorations of the Holocaust intertwine with the ongoing complexities and challenges in the Middle East.

Louis P. Singer Endowed Chair in Jewish History Thomas Pegelow Kapalan is professor of Holocaust studies, focusing on modern German-Jewish history, histories of violence and language. He spoke with CU Boulder Today about the significance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD), its historical context and its impact on shaping collective memory. 

What is International Holocaust Remembrance Day? 

There are several different times during the year that people around the world commemorate and honor the victims of the Holocaust. In Israel, the Knesset (the parliament), established Yom HaShoah as the country’s day of commemoration in 1951. The lawmakers settled on the 27th of Nisan, the date of the beginning of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis. Because it is rooted in the Jewish lunar calendar, it falls in April or May. 

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is actually much more recent in origin. It was established through a resolution by the General Assembly of the United Nations in November 2005. This particular day, observed on Jan. 27, marks the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.

Campus events

Please join the Program in Jewish Studies for their annual Holocaust Remembrance Day program public lecture:

“How Ordinary Were the Ordinary Men —The Puzzle of Perpetration in the Holocaust,” by Dr. Mark Roseman.

Why did it take 60 years to establish an international day of recognition of the Holocaust? 

Well that's indicative of the whole evolution of Holocaust memory. For the State of Israel, for all the obvious reasons, it became really important relatively early on to establish a day to honor the lives lost and those who fought the Nazis, same with the establishment of Yad Vashem—Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, which took place in 1953.

But during the 1950s, if you brought up or talked about things like genocide in the U.S., most Americans would not have immediately thought of what later became known as the Holocaust, and instead would think of the Soviet crimes in the Baltics. It took until the late 1970s for memory cultures to evolve.

How does IHRD contribute to shaping collective memory and awareness of violence against Jews? 

The most obvious answer is reception, and the thought that more education and awareness will translate into different action. But that’s also one of the biggest ironies we are grappling with today. 

There are so many resources and documentation that is widely available on the catastrophic events that lead up to and occurred during the Holocaust. This includes the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive with 55,000-plus video testimonies, mainly by Holocaust survivors, that are readily accessible, including at CU Boulder libraries.

And nonetheless, we’re seeing a global spike in antisemitism and Holocaust denial. We even have major party candidates in the U.S. that are running, or have run, as Holocaust deniers, including North Carolina Lieutenant Gov. Mark Robinson and Arthur Jones for a Congressional seat in Illinois back in 2018. 

How did perceptions of Jews shift after the Holocaust? 

Perceptions didn’t change much directly after the Holocaust, as one might think. There was a surge in news coverage revealing the atrocities that occurred at concentration camps, but it didn't automatically translate into sympathy for Jews, whatsoever. In fact, there was a period of late Nazism in Central Europe that Y. Michal Bodemann, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Toronto, suggests extended into the early 1950s.

So even after being liberated by the Allied Powers, Germany was still rampant with antisemitism, and in the early days after Allied troops had defeated the German forces, the killing of Jews continued. The United States Congress, for a few years, also remained opposed to allowing Holocaust survivors into the country.

It took a long time for the dust to settle before we saw international response and sympathy for survivors. 

Why is recognition of IHRD important given the current events surrounding the Israel-Hamas war? 

In many ways, Jews in Israel and all over the world are still grappling with the shock and trauma of October 7, 2023—it marked a significant turning point on the perceived safety of Jews both in Israel and around the world. I think many non-Jewish observers in the U.S. were surprised by the intense reaction of members of American Jewish communities.

The underlying rationale for the State of Israel is to provide protection, ensuring that Jews facing persecution anywhere in the world can seek refuge and safety in Israel. However, the recent attack on Israel on Oct. 7 challenges this conventional reasoning—a core component of modern Zionism, however defined—raising concerns about the country's security in the face of such events. 

The commonly invoked phrase associated with the Holocaust, “never again,” stems from the philosopher George Santayana’s idea that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Yet, researchers with the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum point to an alarmingly high number of genocides, or near-genocides, that take place around the world, as well as an increase in antisemitic violence in recent years. This includes events leading up to Oct. 7, such as the 2018 Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting and the murdering of Jews in a sacred space. 

What is your response to South Africa’s case before the International Court of Justice, alleging Israel is committing genocide in Gaza?

In my genocide class, we recently discussed the way in which the South African delegation constructed their case, and how it was quite deliberate. They made a number of references to historical events, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in order to attract audiences from around the world. South Africa also has historical experiences with apartheid and support for apartheid charges against Israel in regard to occupied territories. So there’s definitely a precedent for these kinds of dynamics between the two nations. 

The recent International Court of Justice (ICJ) case is centered around Israel employing military force, including dropping bombs in densely populated civilian areas. This approach was also driven, in part, by the deliberate positioning of Hamas leadership and infrastructure within civilian sites, including hospitals and other facilities. It’s nearly impossible to verify any of the numbers that are coming out on civilian deaths on either side, but the ICJ case has already put more pressure on Israel to modify the ways in which they conduct the war in Gaza.