In the past two decades, we have witnessed a steady expansion of interest, beyond Jewish institutions, by the number of government officials willing to introduce and participate in some form or fashion in public observances of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Commemorations are now held in more than 35 countries on January 27th, the day on which, in 1945, Soviet troops liberated the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

This broader initiative of reflecting on the cataclysmic implications of this singular historical event and the lessons that can be applied for a global audience has generated extraordinary interest. Still, it also poses significant challenges in how this tragedy is recounted. There is both faithfulness to preserving the historical specificity of the Shoah (the destruction that befell European Jewry) and a need to broaden how this tragedy is defined to encompass and acknowledge non-Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. Moreover, the commemorations are sometimes organized to pay respect to all those who have suffered genocides or crimes against humanity. 

We often hear that the only proper and “good” use of the past is for purposes that transcend ethnic, religious, or national barriers. It is the “exemplary memory,” which author Tzvetan Todorov wrote about, which is different from a recollection that does not lead beyond itself, of the affected group. While the January 27th commemorations aim to render the Holocaust or its lessons easily relatable to all people, it ignores an irrefutable sociological axiom. Namely, that all collective memory is essentially group-based since the remembered events happened to individuals in specific groups, and those groups endow that past with a particular meaning. The need to package exemplary and abstract memory to appeal to everyone risks diluting facts that are complex, sometimes uncomfortable, and often resist emotional uplift. 

Historian Enzo Traverso pointed out recently that in the 21st century, the Holocaust is presented as a secular theodicy, a grand moral tale that pits almost pure goodness versus absolute evil. Traverso’s critique is somewhat overblown. Still, he pushes us to look beyond the slogans and the hashtags and to rethink the ways to remember the Holocaust meaningfully.

Last year, while I was on sabbatical in Madrid, I attended the International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony that took place in the Spanish Senate. Foreign Minister Josep Borrel recalled in his address that as a child, every Good Friday, he and his friends used to run down the streets of his village in the Catalan Pyrenees with torches and rattles. And they were shouting “a matar jueus!” (kill the Jews). That Easter tradition was nothing other than the theatrical re-enactment of a pogrom. 

Borrel had boldly chosen to bypass the standard watchwords and warnings that typically allows those in attendance to put themselves above it all, at a significant and safe distance from one of the 20th century’s defining tragedies. Instead, he shared his personal memory of a moment where he was closer to the perpetrators than the victims. That lesson cut deep in the audience.

Alejandro Baer, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology and the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.