International Holocaust Remembrance Day: A Backgrounder

Auschwitz I Concentration Camp

The date, January 27, the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, has been chosen to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD).

"The things I saw beggar description ... The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where there were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda.'
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, the liberation of Ohrdruf concentration camp

Why Should We Remember the Holocaust?

Six million Jewish adults and children were murdered, and millions of others were killed or suffered persecution at the hands of the Nazi campaign of dehumanization. Their lives and memory teach us the importance not only of remembering the past but acting in the present to fight antisemitism and hate. The lessons of the Holocaust illustrate the dangers of prejudice, discrimination and antisemitism.

January 27th marked the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and deadliest Nazi extermination camp, during the final phases of the Second World War. In 1945, Allied and Soviet troops retook control of lands occupied by the Nazis, encountering death camps, concentration camps and mass graves where Nazis had carried out their “Final Solution” against the Jewish people.

In some instances, Nazi soldiers tried to dismantle camps and destroy evidence of genocide to conceal their crimes from the world. In other cases, only the buildings remained as the Nazis had sent the prisoners elsewhere, often on death marches. The liberation of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps began in Eastern Europe when Soviet troops reached Majdanek in July 1944. Soon they found many other sites, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, which they liberated on January 27, 1945. 

The British and American troops who were approaching from the west did not reach the concentration camps in Germany until the spring of 1945. They were shocked and surprised, many testifying to the unprecedented nature of the crimes they witnessed, including Jewish concentration camp prisoners on the verge of death, piles of corpses and overwhelming displays of Nazi crimes against humanity.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day Created

On November 1, 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 60/7 to designate January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD). The date marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and is intended to honor the victims of Nazism.

The same resolution supports the development of educational programs which memorialize and teach the Holocaust, and prevent genocide in the present and future. 
Resolution 60/7 not only establishes January 27 as “International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust,” it also rejects Holocaust denial. The resolution encourages member states of the UN to actively preserve sites that the Nazis used during the "Final Solution."

As more became known about the Holocaust through the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg as well as hundreds of other trials of Nazi perpetrators, the newly formed United Nations (1945) convened in December 1948, to pass two transformative resolutions. The first utilized Polish-Jewish lawyer and Holocaust survivor Raphael Lemkin’s concept of genocide, which he coined and explained in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, an international treaty that was passed by the United Nations on December 9, 1948, went into effect in 1951 and has 152 signed Parties as of 2022 (The United States signed in 1988).

This spurred Resolution 217 A, which was passed by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, is known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This landmark document outlines, for the first time, fundamental human rights for all people to be respected and protected by individuals and the international community.

Drawing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the resolution condemns all forms of “religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief” throughout the world.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Commemorating this Day

Any commemoration should be grounded in a conversation about why we remember and how to keep Holocaust stories alive. However you plan to mark the day, it is key to ensure the activity remains respectful of survivors of the Holocaust and victims, and their suffering.

  1. Check with your local synagogue, Jewish community centers, news outlets, college/university event calendars or Holocaust centers for activities.
  2. Have a reading of names. 
  3. Host a film screening of a relevant and appropriate documentary. 
  4. Read and discuss a book on the Holocaust.
  5. Write to elected officials on the importance of Holocaust education.

Did Antisemitism End After the Holocaust?

While the Holocaust was a unique event in history, large-scale persecutions and killings of Jews did not start with the Nazis. Violence, persecution, pogroms, have occurred throughout history. Indeed, antisemitism has existed for millennia before the Holocaust and did not end with the murder of six million. We must remember that the warning signs leading up to even the most lethal of social epidemics are typically far from immediate or obvious. And so today, it is our collective responsibility to recognize the patterns of hate-based prejudice, how this mindset takes root, and even more so how it operates.

Many thought that after the crimes of the Holocaust were exposed, antisemitism would disappear from society. However, 77 years after the end of the Holocaust, this age-old animus is once again on the rise. Spanning nearly 2,000 years, antisemitism is a social animus that survives on an ecosystem of myths and tropes that iterate throughout history and still appear today. Today, antisemitic hate groups seek to racialize Jewish people and vilify them as the manipulative puppet masters behind an economic, political and social scheme.

Antisemitism also supports political extremes, unifying adherents across various extremist ideologies around efforts to subvert and misconstrue the collective suffering of Jewish people in the Holocaust and cast them as conniving opportunists.

While antisemitism has sometimes escalated to violent or genocidal levels, it more often appears in subtler ways, such as insensitive remarks that are brushed off, or negative stereotypes that go unchallenged. We must never normalize even seemingly harmless forms of hate-based prejudice; this is what strengthens dangerous social attitudes, which can erode the values of even the most just society. Silence and complacency in the face of biased remarks or actions permit others to internalize harmful messages, making such messages commonplace.

What is Holocaust Denial?

In the face of extensive credible evidence — volumes of governmental documents, thousands of eyewitness testimonies, first-hand admissions of guilt, photographs, film footage, meticulous written records, museums’ worth of artifacts, not to mention the remains of the concentration camps, gas chambers and crematoria themselves — there are ongoing efforts to distort, disprove and conceal the facts of the Holocaust.

There are those who simply deny the Holocaust ever happened and those who, in a variety of ways, deny elements of the Holocaust. Implicitly and explicitly, Holocaust deniers argue that this entire chapter of history is an elaborate hoax by Jewish propagandists who simply wanted reparations from Germany, the creation of a Jewish state in Israel and a distraction from their own misdeeds.

In a sense, Holocaust denial is as old as the Holocaust itself. Nazi bureaucrats were careful to cover up the Final Solution in bureaucratic language. Jews were not deported but “resettled.” Ghettos were cordoned off for “quarantine.” A death march was merely an “evacuation.”

Read more about Holocaust Denial and other forms of antisemitism at Antisemitism Uncovered.


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