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Why We Put a Holocaust Cattle Car in the Yard

A replica Holocaust-era cattle car was displayed in Harvard Yard by Harvard Hillel in conjunction with the national Hate Ends Now campaign.
A replica Holocaust-era cattle car was displayed in Harvard Yard by Harvard Hillel in conjunction with the national Hate Ends Now campaign. By Courtesy of Harvard Hillel
By Jacob M. Miller, Crimson Opinion Writer
Jacob M. Miller ’25, an Associate Editorial Editor, is a Mathematics concentrator in Lowell House and the President of Harvard Hillel.

The singsong hum of prayers was dominated by one person’s voice — a voice carrying a Yiddish accent of a bygone era, a voice steeped in the Old World Jewish communities known as shtetls, a voice that exuded the type of confidence only found among the old and wise.

That man’s name was Morton Friedman, and he had been proudly reciting those prayers for decades, even after he saw his community nearly entirely wiped off the map of Europe during the Holocaust.

I was lucky because I got to know him between prayer services a decade ago.

“Yankel,” he would say, using the Yiddish version of my name, “how are you doing today?” In the conversations that followed, he would share stories about surviving the concentration camps and seeking refuge aboard the S.S. Exodus along with thousands of other Jewish Holocaust survivors.

But as survivors of the Holocaust grow older and die, fewer and fewer people have the opportunity to learn about its atrocities firsthand. Because of this, public knowledge about the Holocaust is in serious jeopardy. Less than half of respondents in one recent survey of Americans knew how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust, or that Adolf Hitler came to power through a democratic process.

Holocaust denial is also on the rise: An estimated 19 percent of Twitter content on the topic distorts the truth or denies the events outright. In the Netherlands — the former home of Anne Frank, whose diary chronicles her persecution during the Holocaust — a recent survey found that 23 percent of adults under age 40 believe the Holocaust is a myth or exaggerated.

Perhaps as a result of these distorted retellings of history, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. are surging. Last month, the FBI reported a 20 percent increase in violent crimes targeting Jews from 2020 to 2021. According to the American Jewish Committee’s 2021 annual survey, nearly 40 percent of American Jews have reported changing their behavior in fear of being victimized, a trend that makes sense given the multiple recent mass shootings targeting the Jewish community.

Meanwhile, over the past few years, several public figures have used language easily construed as antisemitic. From former President Donald J. Trump’s comments arguing that Jews who vote against him are disloyal to statements from Democratic Representative Ilhan A. Omar that both Republicans and Democrats criticized for playing into antisemitic tropes (although she did later apologize), politicians on both sides of the aisle have played a part in cultivating an antisemitic climate. Other celebrities contribute as well — like Kanye West, who notoriously tweeted that he would “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” even while claiming that he “actually can’t be Anti Semitic.”

Antisemitism is not the only kind of hate that increases when we forget the Holocaust. A primary lesson of the Holocaust was how easily society can slip into an authoritarian and genocidal state. Before the Nazis took over, Germany was a promising democratic republic and a center of arts and culture. Remembering the Holocaust can help us recognize history repeating itself — including, scarily, the mass genocides that are still taking place today.

Growing up, the Holocaust was just a fact of my life, and thinking about it was like thinking about my parents' childhood — nothing in my community would make sense without it. The oft-repeated mantra “never forget” seemed so inane that it bordered on meaningless. After all, how could one possibly forget such an atrocity?

Today, that rallying cry no longer appears so trivial.

In 2020, Morton Friedman died. He can no longer share his story with others. Slowly, recollection of the Holocaust is passing from eyewitness stories to the domain of history textbooks. The challenge our generation faces is establishing how we can “never forget” when those with lived memory are nowhere to be found.

One truth is obvious: In order to never forget, we must always remember.

On an intellectual level, remembering is easy — a history textbook is a sufficient resource for those seeking to understand exactly what transpired. But sometimes it takes more extreme measures to truly comprehend the Holocaust.

The concentration camps where Jews were forced to do hard labor, and then brutally murdered and cremated in mass ovens, are kept in their original condition so that visitors can be impressed by the stunning cruelty of the Nazi regime. Film and literature produced by victims, as well, can provide a visceral perspective. And this potential for a visceral connection was why we — Harvard Hillel — brought a replica of a Nazi cattle car into Harvard Yard.

It is true that films and artifacts are disturbing — but that is precisely the point. The memory of atrocity fades when it is reduced to descriptions or images. Sometimes it takes seeing an actual object, or watching a vivid account, to experience the revulsion that the memory of the Holocaust should evoke.

While taking a class about the Holocaust is educational, seeing a cattle car where Jews were packed like sardines, and transported for days without food or water and only a bucket for excrement, is unforgettable. Touring a concentration camp where Jews were brutally suffocated in specially built gas chambers is very different from reading the number six million.

Those of us who have heard survivors share their experiences aren’t likely to forget the terrors of the Holocaust soon. But our societal memory is flickering, and we are feeling its result. Antisemitism, and hate writ large, can only be combated properly when we remember the past.

I will miss talking with Morton Friedman, but I will carry his memories with me. I hope you will too.

Jacob M. Miller ’25, an Associate Editorial Editor, is a Mathematics concentrator in Lowell House and the President of Harvard Hillel.

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