Close up of lit memorial candles.

Echoes of the past, lessons for the future: Unraveling the Holocaust’s enduring impact 

In the somber shadow of the Holocaust, the world witnessed not just the aftermath of an unprecedented atrocity, but the genesis of a resilient transformation—one that would stretch across Jewish communities, international law, education and collective memory. 

Jay Geller

Nearly eight decades have passed since the horror of those years, yet this tragic event continues to shape our world, our understanding of human rights and our commitment to never forget.

In honor of tomorrow (Jan. 27) being International Holocaust Remembrance Day, The Daily sat down with Jay Geller, the Samuel Rosenthal Professor of Judaic Studies in the Department of History at Case Western Reserve University, to learn more about the Holocaust’s impact on our world.

Geller is an expert on the history of the Jews in modern Germany, with a particular interest in politics, society and relations between Jews and non-Jews. He teaches a wide range of courses on Jewish history, the history of modern Europe, German history and urban history. Among his courses is HSTY 254: The Holocaust.

“The Holocaust is an event whose origins, course, and aftermath are worthy of historical study,” Geller explained, “but the antisemitism, anti-modernism, and fascism that permitted the Holocaust also merit serious examination. They have dissipated, but they still exist in different forms and affect society,” he continued. “I am reminded of this quote by the Holocaust survivor and great Italian author Primo Levi in his book The Drowned and the Saved: ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.’”

Read on to learn more from Geller about the Holocaust’s enduring impact on Jewish communities, human rights and global consciousness. 

1. Six million Jewish people and countless others were killed in the Holocaust, causing long-lasting demographic and cultural changes.

In 1939, there were approximately 16.6 million Jews worldwide. Six years later, there were only 11 million. We have only reached the pre-Holocaust level in the past year or so. But the European Jewish population has not recovered and never will fully recover demographically.  

Most of the Holocaust’s victims were European Jews, especially eastern European, and most American Jews are descended from European immigrants, especially eastern European. So this massive loss of their ancestors’ civilization and culture has loomed large over American Jewry for nearly 80 years.

On the one hand, rites of mourning for that lost world remain part of the American Jewish liturgy and even its identity. On the other hand, the destruction of European Jewry meant that the chief seats of Jewish learning and cultural production were thereafter in America, at least until Israel became more prominent. The Holocaust led to the Jews of the United States having a leading role in the world Jewish community.

2. The Holocaust’s severe trauma led to epigenetic changes for survivors’ descendants.

In the last decade or so, we have gained a new empirically based understanding of the trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Trauma can affect a person’s genes in a way that gets passed down to succeeding generations without modifying the DNA.

Scientists call this change “epigenetic” rather than “genetic.” The epigenetics of Holocaust survivors and succeeding generations is a fascinating and broadly applicable area for further research.  

3. The Holocaust led to the creation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

After World War II, many of the top Nazis and their facilitators were put on trial by the allies in Nuremberg. While crimes against humanity was one of the charges levied against them—in addition to crimes against peace, war crimes, and conspiracy—“genocide” was not one of the charges. There was no international convention or law against it at the time.

However, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who lost many relatives in the Holocaust and who studied the Armenian genocide, coined the concept of “genocide” and worked to create the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, approved by the United Nations in 1948.

Fifty years later, the International Criminal Court was established to provide a supranational institution to try cases of international crimes, including genocide. The legal definition of genocide is, like many legal definitions, limited and specific. The popular concept of “genocide” may or may not match the legal definition, which is used by the ICC and international bodies.   

4. The memory of the Holocaust had little echo in the wider international community until after 1961.

Holocaust memory was strong in Jewish communities from the start, but it had little echo in the wider international community until the public trial of Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann in 1961, when the story entered popular consciousness in a way it had not since the war. Eichmann, who had a major role in planning and implementing the Holocaust, escaped justice after the war and was hiding in Argentina. He was captured in 1960 and put on trial in Israel the next year. Millions of people around the world heard his trial on the radio or saw it on television.

Interest in the Holocaust gained further impetus in the late 1970s with the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and the television miniseries Holocaust. The opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, with its library and research center, led to a massive increase in scholarly attention and popular attention.    

Today, we commonly speak of the field of Holocaust and genocide studies, as scholars seek to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to other genocides or other potential genocides.  

5. The complexities of Holocaust commemoration have led to numerous remembrance days worldwide.

Different communities commemorate the Holocaust on different dates for different reasons, and they choose to remember it in different ways. The international community marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27 because it is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Jewish community remembers the victims of the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah, a holiday on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, in the spring. That date was chosen for its proximity to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Jewish communities in Germany commemorate Nov. 9, the anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938.