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April 25, 2017

Remember and Respect the Holocaust by Rejecting a Rewriting of History

This week, we observe the Days of Remembrance to commemorate the Holocaust, remember its victims, and honor the survivors.  On Monday, we celebrated the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the heroism of Jewish resistance to the Nazis. To honor the bravery of those who rose up, we must not allow the rewriting of history. Our remembrance must be an active form of resistance; we must be ever vigilant as we oppose efforts to celebrate or exonerate those responsible for the most extreme expression of lethal hatred in history.

In April and May 1943, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, having been warned that that the Germans would deport the remaining ghetto inhabitants to the Treblinka extermination camp, came together to attack German tanks with whatever small munitions they could get their hands on.  Though the fighters were vastly outnumbered and out-armed, they valiantly resisted for almost a month. In the end, the ghetto was demolished and German units killed up to seven thousand Jews and deported approximately another seven thousand to Treblinka, where almost all were killed in the gas chambers. This uprising inspired others, in Bialystok, Minsk, Treblinka and Sobibor.

Not all forms of resistance involved weapons. As documented by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jews defended their heritage by “creating Jewish cultural institutions, continuing to observe religious holidays and rituals, providing clandestine education, publishing underground newspapers, and collecting and hiding documentation, as in the case of the Oneg Shabbat archive in Warsaw that would tell the story of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto…”

Such forms of documentation are now tools to help us counter those who seek to rewrite history. British chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvi recently decried the lack of respect for the truth among politicians, saying, “Falsehood is what drives division and fuels hatred.”

One of those Mirvi was undoubtedly referencing was Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a Labour party member who repeatedly claims that Zionists and Nazis engaged in “real collaboration.” But most of the new Holocaust revisionists are on the right.  On both sides of the Atlantic, modern-day far-right populists appear ascendant in part because they have created a more palatable public posture by downplaying their bigotry, at least as far as concerns Jews. But many of these leaders’ true nature is revealed when they deny ugly truths of the Holocaust and the culpability of those who collaborated with the Nazis.

Marine LePen—the controversial leader of France’s far-right National Front party, who faces Emmanuel Macron in a runoff election on May 7th—has tried to put a more mainstream face on a party whose former leader, Le Pen’s father, once called the Holocaust a “detail of history.”

Yet recently she said, “I don’t think that France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv.” She’s referring to one of the darkest days in French history, when French police brought 13,000 Jews from to the ‘Vel d’Hiv,’ a famous indoor stadium in Paris. From there they were deported to their deaths at Auschwitz. In 1995, President Jacques Chirac more appropriately said: “France, on that day, committed the irreparable. Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners."

France is certainly not alone. Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) claimed in an interview with Die Welt that her party was "one of the few political guarantors of Jewish life, even in times of illegal anti-Semitic migration to Germany;" and some Jews have in fact joined the AfD as members and candidates. At the same time, her fellow party members continue to make headlines with offensive re-imaginations of the Holocaust; in March, for example, AfD politician Björn Höcke denied that Hitler was “absolutely evil” in the Wall Street Journal. To those who dismiss the significance of such rhetoric, consider this: in 2015, 91 percent of antisemitic hate crimes in Germany were committed by right wing extremists. Antisemitic rhetoric, including Holocaust revisionism, gives license to those inclined to express their hatred with violence.

The Ukrainian government has literally made Holocaust revisionism the law. Cynically playing to nationalist sentiments to bolster Ukraine’s legitimate defense against Russia and the separatists it backs in Ukraine’s east, in 2015 it adopted a law that allows for the prosecution of people who “publicly exhibit a disrespectful attitude” toward the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), groups that collaborated with the Nazis. As a testament to Ukraine’s still unsettled relationship to its own past, at the site of the Babi Yar massacre, which honors the memory of more than 33,000 murdered Ukrainian Jews, there exists an exhibit honoring Ivan Rohach, an OUN activist whose newspaper once described Jews as the “greatest enemy of the people.”

Referring to the rise of ethno-nationalist xenophobes in her home country, Charlotte Knobloch, a German Holocaust survivor, recently noted that if the AfD were successful its bid to make hatred against minorities socially acceptable again, Germany could experience another “nightmare.” We must all do our part to prevent by that nightmare from becoming reality, in Germany and everywhere. This work begins with a steadfast commitment to recounting history in all of its horror and complexity, and not allowing the whitewashing of memory. Today, President Trump will deliver the keynote address for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. As President Trump honors the memory of the Holocaust, we urge him to turn his words of tribute into concrete action that will put meaning behind the words, “never again.”