Dr. Edna Friedberg, a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, will be in Boston June 5 on the occasion of the museum’s 25th anniversary to speak about “Holocaust History and Today’s News.” She spoke with JewishBoston about her upcoming talk.

How has the “Polish Holocaust Bill” affected other countries?

I sense that the Polish Holocaust law is not an isolated phenomenon. It’s part of a broader and troubling phenomenon that we’re seeing around the world, particularly in lands where the Holocaust happened. These countries are trying to rewrite or revise history in ways that distort the actions of local governments and local populations and reduce what is very complex history into a simple morality tale. It’s part of bigger movements related to the consolidation of national identity. We can see the kind of convulsions that Europe is going through now that include the changes in demographics and the influx of migrants and more diverse populations. What happens is that Holocaust history often gets turned into a football in these identity wars. The Polish law also troubles me because it has a chilling effect on free scholarship and free debate.

In other countries, we don’t see explicit legislation yet, but some of them are trying to shut down free inquiry or honest, clear-headed research. We also see government officials, leaders of political parties and even religious leaders trying to erase all of the nuances and sometimes the ugly skeletons in the closet of local Holocaust history.

Why does the memory of the Holocaust continue to make headlines while also coming under assault?


We’re seeing a phenomenon borne out of the specific moment in which we find ourselves with fewer and fewer people for whom this is not just history, but their lives. We also have fewer eyewitnesses to specific events, or even people who are still alive and may not have been victims of the Holocaust or participated in it, but for whom it was news rather than something reported in a history textbook. That kind of liminal moment is precarious. It becomes easier to challenge the veracity of something when it is a matter of opinion as opposed to witnessing.

How is the memory of the Holocaust used or manipulated in anti-Israel propaganda?

I turn again and again to a helpful definition that was issued a number of years ago by the State Department of when criticism of the State of Israel crosses the line. Among the points is whether or not the State of Israel is being held to a different standard than any other government. Another is when Holocaust analogies and Nazi analogies are used against the Jewish state very [deliberately]. There are many areas and grounds of criticism of Israel’s government, and we see that robustly in Israel itself. When someone calls Israeli soldiers Nazis, an editorial cartoon evokes the train tracks into Auschwitz or something has a swastika, that’s a clue that there is something else going on there. They are targeting that government because it is Jewish and deliberately invoking what is most hurtful to the Jewish state. I see that as anti-Semitic, as does the United States government.

Dr. Edna Friedberg (Courtesy photo)
Dr. Edna Friedberg (Courtesy photo)

Almost two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is. How do we fill in the knowledge gap, and how does that affect their understanding of the news headlines?

What we see in the United States is not only a disappointing and disturbing lack of literacy from young people, but something that is also reflective of a larger trend—a larger decline in history education overall. Unlike most European countries, the United States has no national Holocaust curriculum. There are no educational state standards in the United States or goals set by a national body. Increasingly, the teaching of history has gone by the wayside in ways that are cheating our teens today. The thing that is encouraging and heartening is to see the lines around the building around the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. We have welcomed over 42 million visitors since the museum opened 25 years ago. There is a hunger for this information—a hunger for credible information.

You see in startling survey results people who don’t know what questions to ask. If you don’t know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States during World War II, how can you pronounce the name of the site of an atrocity that is across an ocean? Our country should try hard and quickly to correct these historical deficits for our own sense of purpose and growth.

What else will you be addressing during your Boston appearance?

A big part of what I will talk about is how the museum adapts the way we teach about the Holocaust to see where the points of connection are for people today. For example, there is ongoing ethics training for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to see what the roles of border police and customs officials were during the Holocaust. It took the actions of many millions of people to make a crime like the Holocaust possible. Many people were involved in seemingly mundane bureaucratic work. But when a system is designed to perpetrate mass theft and eventually mass murder, even a clerk can be an enabler.

We work with ICE agents, recruits to the FBI, local police and members of state judiciaries all across the country—anyone whose job is about defending civil rights, democracy, human dignity. I see that as central to our mission and the reason there should be a museum on the National Mall dedicated to what is essentially a European event. It is really about the human experience and the fragility of our democracy.

I’ll also be talking about Holocaust revisionism and European identity, as well as why we’re still discussing the Holocaust. A lot of it is the connection to the rise of political extremism in Europe, where we see examples of it on both the political left and right, and not just in populist movements. Whenever we see ideological extremes doing better than centrists, it is an indicator of a society’s poor health.

This interview has been edited and condensed.  

Dr. Edna Friedberg will be speaking at the Boston Public Library on June 5. Find information and registration here.