Our Collective Responsibility Is to Never Forget the Holocaust | Opinion

Acts of widespread evil do not manifest out of thin air. They begin with words.

Words first articulated as whispers that then spread like a cancer through a society. That's until there is no concealment, no fig leaf—just hatred articulated loudly. And then the conditions are ripe for evil to race from house to house and city to city. Left unchecked, what starts with a murmur can metastasize into abhorrent action.

I experienced this evil firsthand growing up in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1940. Each school day, I would walk with my friend, a young girl in my neighborhood, to class. But on a day like any other, our friendship forever changed. She refused to walk with me, or even interact at all. Evil had overtaken her.

Her father explained to her that I am a Jew, and therefore responsible for every single thing that goes wrong in the world. Those words have stuck with me ever since. Those words, from father to daughter, between neighbors and friends, were repeated, over and over, and anti-Semitism spread across a continent not known for religious, racial or ethnic tolerance. I lost my friend to the ignorant bigotry of her father. Millions lost much more than that. I am fortunate to have survived.

In the Book of Proverbs, it is written that, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." This is as true today and when I experienced it more than a half-century ago as when it was written. Words and ideas of hatred—blood libels and the abhorrent stereotypes of the world's bigots who have perfected the art of denial—can still have deadly consequences.

We hear the speakers loud and clear. So, too, do the willing agents of hatred.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 56.9 percent of anti-religious hate crimes are motivated by anti-Jewish bias. Alarmingly, a recent survey showed 60 percent of American Millennials and those in Generation Z—roughly everyone under the age of 40—do not know that six million Jews died in the Holocaust. In England, nearly one in five believes Jews are responsible for COVID-19, and slightly more than that believe Muslims are spreading the virus as an attack on Western values.

Visitors to Auschwitz
Visitors to Auschwitz BARTOSZ SIEDLIK/AFP via Getty Images

America has witnessed too many tragedies of late that have stemmed from evil, anti-Semitic vitriol. And one tragedy is one too many. The consequences of this hatred, enabled by ignorance and fealty to false pretenses of free speech, have been laid bare in the blood of Jews attacked or killed at synagogues, in markets, on the streets and in their homes.

The more cautious among today's anti-Semites—those who still value a place in polite society—often conceal their hatred of Jews behind a fig leaf of opposition to Israel's existence. But their opposition to the Jewish right to self-determination remains their reason for existence.

I am 91 years old. And the reality is that children born in the next decade may never meet a Holocaust survivor. But our story—the lessons of our history—must never be forgotten. "Never Again" is a promise, not a slogan, and it is incumbent upon every parent, every teacher and every person of conscience to uphold that promise to teach our world's youth that evil cannot supersede good. Education is the ultimate antidote to hatred's poison.

So, take your children to a Holocaust memorial or a museum. Invite a survivor to your school, church or community organization. Read. Study. Demand that Holocaust education be a part of the curriculum in your child's school and then carefully observe how your friends, neighbors and community leaders respond.

No one—not one person—should have to face the atrocities that I did, and that the six million Jews whose lives were lost in the Holocaust did. We have power over our words, for better or for worse. I encourage you—especially during a time that seems difficult and divided—to do better and ensure that whispers and hatred of a few don't turn into the actions, heartache and loss of many.

Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor and educator, appears in the forthcoming documentary Never Again?, in select theaters on Oct. 13 and Oct. 15. To learn more, visit www.neveragainthemovie.com.

The views expressed this article are the writer's own.