When I was a youngster, and the subject came around to the Holocaust, my mother told me about receiving letters from her relatives in Lithuania, beseeching the family in America to bring them to the U.S., as the Nazis and their collaborators tightened their grip on Jews in the Baltics.
This troubled my mother to no end, as the family had no connections, political or otherwise, that could have saved an uncle, aunts, and numerous cousins living in places like Vilna, Musnik, and Boguslavisic. That frustration must have preyed on her mind, always wondering if she could have done something to extricate the family from the jaws of extermination.
About 13 years ago, one of my sisters told me that her china closet had tipped over and in the process of the drawers falling out, revealed a packet on which was written, in my grandfather’s handwriting: “Inside My Sister’s Letter,” and under that, my mother had written: “Take Care of This.”
I took the packet thinking that finally, after many decades, these were the letters with the heartbreaking appeal to be saved from the fate they must have known awaited them. I looked at the one envelope in the packet, and saw that it was postmarked April 3, 1935, too early for our relatives to have concluded that the end was near.
Immediately I had the letters—one from my grandfather’s brother, one from his wife and another from my grandfather’s half-sister—translated from the handwritten Yiddish to English. The translator was the late Herman Taube, a survivor from Poland, who became a poet and writer, and a fellow congregant at my synagogue near Washington, D.C.
The content of the letters was similar. Family news from Lithuania, and questions about the family in America, written in that loving way before the ease of long-distance telephone calls. Speaking to my mother, my great-uncle Shlomo Yitzchak Berzak writes:
“Dear Rose, by looking on the pictures, we understand the psychology of all of you, we can see your interest in social life activities, even with strangers…I myself, who is close to you all, love you dearly, no distance, no power in the world can separate us.”
My great-uncle goes to write about his health, and promises that his daughter Chanele “will write to you, she is very busy, she writes that she received from you a gift and pictures and that she will write to you the latest news.”
He closes the letter with: “If you, dear Rose, will send us flowers from your garden, we will enjoy with great pleasure. Their scent will give us the aroma of the Garden of Eden.”
And this, from Shlomo Yitzchak’s wife, Etel, to her sister-in-law, my grandmother Shifra: “May the Almighty bless you and Avraham-Yona (my grandfather) with good health and joy from your children, good hearted and G-d fearing, as we can see from Rose’s writing.”
These few letters are all we have of what must have been a decades-long correspondence. My grandfather arrived in America at the very end of the 19th century, and brought over my grandmother, my eldest uncle and my mother in 1903.
Though touching, there is nothing especially unusual about these letters, with their inquiries about each other’s health and well -being, and expressions of familial love in both directions. We assume there must have been correspondence after this, but we do know that nothing further was heard from Shlomo Yitzchak, Etel, or Alta Sarah after 1941, when they, and all of their family members, were rounded up and shot by the Nazis and their local collaborators.
Reading these letters now, the longing to reunite is all the more heartbreaking, knowing it was not to be. Wrote Alta Sarah to my grandfather, his half-sister:
“I hardly remember how you look…but I still remember and miss you all very much, we desire how you look now…only G-d knows if you can (make the effort) to come and visit us. Now, our only consolation are letters, to know you are all in good health and read the good news about you and your family.”
As time passes, now 75 years since the end of the Holocaust, those who deny that it ever happened are seen and heard all over the internet. As the number of survivors who experienced and witnessed Nazi Germany’s singular barbarity decreases by the day, Holocaust denial, minimalization, and trivialization increasingly goes unanswered, a victim of fading memories and “anything goes” comment on social media platforms.
Indeed, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s flip-flop, after agreeing to delete expressions of Holocaust denial, was a classic example of 1984-speak. Said Dorsey, in response to a question from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado): “It’s (Holocaust denial) misleading information. But we don’t have a policy against that type of misleading information.”
The First Amendment is many things, but it should not stop a leading social media platform from denying its space to those who would rob us of our history, and who would actively enable deniers to promote outright lies about history’s most brutal crimes; crimes which occurred in the memory of tens of thousands of survivor witnesses who are still with us today.
When I entered the Jewish communal field in the 1970s, Holocaust denial in the United States was in the hands of people like Arthur Butz, an engineering professor who wrote “the Hoax of the Twentieth Century; the Institute of Historical Review (IHR, on whose Board Butz sat); and from Willis Carto, founder of the far-right Liberty Lobby (and a founder of the IHR). Their message of denial was of deep cause for concern, but—without the internet megaphone we have today—their voices produced a loyal but somewhat limited following.
Holocaust denial today comes in all shapes and forms: from the Left, the Right, Islamists, and social media freelancers. A good deal of it emanates from Iran, which—not content to call only for Israel’s destruction on a daily basis—also seeks to mock the destruction of European Jewry.
The regime in Tehran conducted an annual cartoon contest, whose objective was to lampoon the Holocaust. One of the winners featured an old fashioned cash register, with the number 6,000,000 rung up, a cash draw on which was written “Shoah Business,” and a key to open the register, festooned with a Star of David—on which was written “B’nai B’rith.”
Holocaust denial ironically brings together the extremes of the political spectrum. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian reported gatherings of former Labor Party members and known far-right figures who traffic in anti-Israel tropes and Holocaust revisionism. “Storybook gas chambers,” is how one convener of these gatherings described the death camps. Another participant professed that there were no deaths in Auschwitz.
In Germany—of all places—one of the leaders of the ultra-nationalist AfD Party, famously referred to the period of rule during the Third Reich as but “a speck of bird poop.”
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ doctoral dissertation, written in the Soviet Union, minimizes the extent of the Holocaust and charged Zionist organizations with encouraging it. Nearly 40 years after writing this, Abbas still dabbles in denialist and revisionist rhetoric, including a speech in 2018 in which he charged Jewish “social behavior,” and not anti-Semitism, as being the cause of the Holocaust.
There is a perfect storm brewing of Holocaust denial and Holocaust ignorance. The Conference on Materials Claims Against Germany (known as the Claims Conference) 2020 survey points to some frightening, but not surprising statistics: 48% of U.S. millennials and Gen Z-ers were unable to name a single concentration camp. 63% did not know how many Jews were killed; 36% thought the number was fewer than 2 million. And, perhaps most disconcerting, is that 11% of those polled believe Jews themselves were responsible for the Holocaust.
If these young people come to Holocaust history tabula rasa, then will they learn that history from the internet, where deniers and minimizers lurk around every corner? The Claims Conference survey is the lastest wake-up call to act while we still can, and while there are still survivors with tattoos on their arms to attest to the fact that “I was there.”
Good for those who go on the March of the Living to see the sites of the Nazi concentration camps in Poland, or those Jewish schools which offer similar trips to graduating seniors. But what about our public schools? To date, only 15 states require that Holocaust education be a part of their public school curricula.
And what about Europe, where these very crimes were committed and which is experiencing a dramatic spike in anti-Semitism? The need for public-sponsored Holocaust education is as evident here as anywhere. Even though many European countries are members of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which commits its members to teaching about the Holocaust, adherence to this pledge varies from place to place. Kudos to those countries that have appointed special envoys to combat anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial. But more countries need to do the same. And a growing number of countries, including Austria, France, Germany and Romania have adopted legislation that makes Holocaust denial a crime, and here too, more should do so.
The problem also exists in the Islamic world, where in many countries young people are taught that the Holocaust is a myth perpetrated by Zionists playing on international sympathy in order to wrest land from the Palestinians. Much credit goes to the Secretary General of the Muslim World League Muhammad Abdul-Karim al-Isa, who led a groundbreaking visit of Islamic leaders to Auschwitz-Birkenau this year on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. The value of such initiatives cannot be overestimated.
The passage of time and the fading of memory is our most daunting challenge. That, and the willingness to believe that such a horrendous period ever happened. For their own nefarious reasons, anti-Semites of all stripes have found common cause, and sick satisfaction from turning history on its ear, and tormenting us by perpetuating the charge that this was all a myth.
Eighty-five years ago, Shlomo Yitzchak, Etel, and Alta Sarah Berzak wrote about their lives, about things that were the most important to them; health issues, news about the family, the hope that they would one day meet up with my grandfather and my mother and continue the conversation in person.
We know their lives were brutally ended, along with six million other Jews, in the blink of an eye. No more letters, no more expressions of love and good wishes, no more exchanges of photos.
To perniciously dismiss their demise by declaring it never happened, is simply unacceptable. These Jews were abandoned once, with such tragic consequences. We must not let it happen a second time, while there is still an opportunity to do all we can to honor their memory and defeat those who would rob it from us.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
Two events last week have illustrated, once again, how much Europe’s tin ear on Iran, and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to function, despite a rapidly changing geopolitical environment in the region.
The United Nations Security Council, in a 2-2 vote, with 11 abstentions, refused to support an extension of the arms embargo on Iran, which has been in place since 2007. Russia and China voted against, which came as no surprise. The only country that joined the United States, which has for some time supported the extension, was the Dominican Republic. But among the countries casting an abstention were Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Nine votes were needed to adopt an extension of the embargo.
The embargo not only prohibits the sale of conventional weapons to Iran but also prohibits Iran from transferring weapons to its proxies. It’s been in violation of this provision through its repeated delivery of rockets and other weaponry to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations.
In their explanation of why they voted as they did, the Europeans expressed concern that an embargo extension would chase Tehran away from the discredited 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), ostensibly agreed to in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The United States withdrew from the plan in 2018, citing its loose provisions and loopholes that would allow, after a period of 15 years, Iran to continue its nuclear weapons program. Effective, unannounced inspections of military sites, for example — a provision touted by supporters of the JCPOA — could not be carried out under the plan because of an arcane protocol of advance notice to the Iranians. Nor was Iran’s ballistic missile program, focused on being able to carry nuclear warheads as far as the heart of Europe, dismantled.
With cover provided by the JCPOA, Iran has set about to militarily and geopolitically meddle in the affairs of its neighbors. Its presence, or proxy connections in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and of course Lebanon are there for all to see. Lebanon has become part of “Iran Inc.” with its terrorist proxy Hezbollah having insinuated itself into the cabinet, and the terror group’s influence on the Lebanese army growing year-to-year. Not to mention its relationship with Hamas, in what amounts to a real time Shia-Sunni demonstration of the dictum, “the enemy of my enemy [Israel] is my friend.”
The final straw for those who cling to the JCPOA should have been Israel’s carrying off that trove of documents last year from a Tehran warehouse, that makes it abundantly clear that Iran has been developing nuclear weapons. What more could the Security Council want for evidence of Tehran’s intentions?
And as if that weren’t enough, the Gulf Cooperation Council, representing six countries with varying interests in the region, supported the extension of the embargo because of Iran’s constant threats to most of its member states.
So instead of sending a clear message to Iran that its malign behavior will no longer be tolerated, whether it be its nuclear ambitions, its support for terrorism or its hegemonist sweep across the region, by not voting to extend the arms embargo, Europe once again punted. Its lack of principle is not only disheartening, it is frightening.
Notwithstanding European expressions of “concern” over Iranian behavior, the real test — voting for the continuation of the embargo — has been failed miserably by governments whose modus operandi on this and many other vital issues is to do some can-kicking down the road of international diplomacy.
The other major event involving the region last week was the tremendously transformative announcement of the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Along with the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace agreements which preceded it, the Abraham Accord is the third pillar of diplomatic achievements to bring stability to the region.
For decades the conventional thinking was that if an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be achieved, peace between Israel and the rest of the Arab world would soon follow (see: the Fahd Plan, later called the Arab Peace Initiative, which promoted that approach to peacemaking). In fact, the 1979 agreement with Egypt, and the 1994 pact with Jordan did not wait for an agreement with the Palestinians, making the point that procrastination, where real strategic interests are at stake, makes no sense.
The Palestinians have walked away from numerous opportunities to negotiate a deal with Israel. Now, time has moved on, and they are looking at a train that is rapidly moving out of the station.
That approach has now been validated by the normalization agreement announced by President Donald Trump. Reaction among most European states was favorable. For months, though, the European Union and most of its member states were obsessed with warning Israel against an annexation plan in the West Bank that they were absolutely sure would happen. They might have spent that time more productively urging the Palestinian Authority to come to the negotiating table with Israel, but preferred instead to browbeat Israel, in the-sky-is-falling rhetoric.
Notwithstanding the encomiums that have flowed in from most European capitals, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn introduced a jarring assessment of the normalization agreement, in language reminding us that old speak on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still alive and well in Europe.
Said Asselborn of the diplomatic breakthrough, speaking critically of the UAE with Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio: “…I think you can’t just let down your own brothers [Palestinians] in order to pursue economic interests and perhaps also have more security for yourself.”
Never have more hypocritical words been spoken. If Asselborn is right, what is Luxembourg doing in the European Union or as a member of NATO? Of course nation states pursue economic and security interests. Some also pursue policies aimed at bringing peace and stability to their neighborhoods, which is what the normalization agreement looks to accomplish.
Asselborn didn’t stop there; it gets worse: ”I am not an expert in theology, but I think that in all cultures and religions there is a well-established norm against theft. This is one of the basic norms of human co-existence….” He went on to say that “notwithstanding the Ten Commandments, seizing territory by force is a violation of Israel’s obligations under the U.N. Charter…and goes against a host of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
Not only are Asselborn’s remarks an expression of sour grapes, but he has crossed a red line in diplo-speak. He is charging Israel, citing none other than the Ten Commandments, with stealing from the Palestinians, which takes it dangerously into blood libel territory. The old Yiddish expression — “vos iz oyfn lung iz oyfn tsung” — or what it is you breathe (really believe) is what you say,” — has never been more apt.
How can countries whose representatives hold such views, given the history of the region and the complexities of peacemaking, ever present themselves as honest brokers or even objective observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum?
The European abstentions in the Security Council vote on extending the arms embargo on Iran, and the Asselborn comments on the Israel-UAE normalization pact are stark reminders that in parts of Europe old attitudes and biases die hard. It’s not only imagination that’s lacking in Europe, it is an inability — or perhaps unwillingness — to act on principle. Standing up to bullies like Iran or recognizing that the diplomatic winds blowing out of the Gulf represent initiatives that might in fact lead to some kind of accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians, are the shape of things to come.
Stuck somewhere in the 20th century, Europe is late to the game, the one where tectonic shifts which present new opportunities to bring about positive changes in the world order, are taking place every day.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
CEO Op-ed in Fox News: Europeans Continue Unjustified Criticism of Israel but Ignore Real Middle East Threats
A new coalition government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz is expected to take office in Israel Sunday, soon after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Jewish state.
Pompeo met with Netanyahu and Gantz on Wednesday week to discuss Israel’s plan to annex part of the West Bank and the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
Netanyahu said he was “confident” President Trump will honor his commitment to help Israel carry out the annexation, which will be done in coordination with the U.S.
But while American support for Israel remains strong, the same can’t be said for European nations.
Even as the coronavirus pandemic rages globally and is hitting several European countries fast and hard – and when the global economy is teetering in response – Europe still has time to engage in one of its favorite pastimes: criticizing and opposing Israel.
It is not surprising to see the European Union and some of its member states trying to outrace each other on warning Israel’s new government against annexation of part of the West Bank.
A major provision in the new Israeli coalition’s agreement includes a July 1 green light on annexation of territory in the so-called Area C in the West Bank, an administrative section delineated in the 1993 Oslo Accords. It is administered by Israel, and contains several clearly defined Israeli population centers, most of which are contiguous to Israel.
But while European nations are quick to criticize Israel, they are passive about the real threats to stability in the region.
Just last week, Mohsen Rezaei of Iran’s Expediency Council threatened to “raze Israeli cities to the ground” even in the event there is a U.S. response to Iranian attacks against American forces in Iraq.
These threats – to destroy Israeli cities filled with civilians and wipe out “the Zionist entity” and the “Zionist cancer” – are made on a regular basis by leading Iranian officials like Rezaei. The response in Europe to such genocidal rhetoric is essentially a collective yawn.
It reminds one of similar language used by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the years when it was hijacking airliners, attacking synagogues in Rome and Antwerp, planting bombs in buses in Israeli cities, and calling for Israel’s destruction. At the time, much of this was dismissed by European governments as “Israel’s problem,” or minimized as just being for “home (Palestinian) consumption.”
In other words, don’t take it seriously. That, while Iran continues its malign presence in Syria, attacks American bases in Iraq, re-stocks the arms depots of the terrorist group Hezbollah, counts the terrorist group Hamas as a willing ally, sends a military satellite into space, and marches on in its ultimate goal of developing nuclear weapons.
Indeed, most European states are still not sure whether or not to call the nuclear deal with Iran – the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) – a failed enterprise, even while Iranian efforts to dominate the Middle East proceed apace.
And yet, Europe always has time to express bias against Israel.
Pronouncements out of Brussels from the European Union’s top foreign policy chief, Joseph Borrell, called annexation by Israel “a serious violation of international law” and said the EU “will act accordingly.”
Similar warnings have come from Paris, Berlin and other capitals. Threats of imposing sanctions on Israel and the recall of ambassadors are being made, all in the name of protecting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Europe’s admonitions against Israel ring hollow.
Since the-then European Economic Community (the forerunner of the EU) 1980 Venice Declaration that endorsed Palestinian self-government, Europe has been largely supportive of the Palestinian narrative to the conflict.
When the EU has imposed discipline of voting at the United Nations, member states often abstain on Israeli-Palestinian issues, which to the Palestinian camp is seen as wavering support in Europe for Israel.
When left to vote on their own, some European countries have voted with the Palestinian side on issues concerning Jerusalem, for example, at UNESCO or even at the World Health Organization.
There is also an interesting breakdown when no EU bloc voting is imposed at the U.N. Most countries in Central and Eastern Europe are more inclined to be supportive of Israel. But instances of such “open voting” are few and far between.
If Europe wanted to be helpful it would have been pushing the Palestinians from the time of the 1993 Oslo accords to resolve their conflict with Israel by going to the negotiating table and making reasonable and reciprocal compromises with the Jewish state.
It has been repeated often, but bears saying again: opportunities for the Palestinians to make a deal have been presented numerous times over many years – at Camp David, after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, at Annapolis and with then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative. But the Palestinians have always walked away, because making peace would require their taking less than the zero-sum result they have been promising their people.
The Europeans know full well – as the Palestinians certainly do – that the Israeli population blocs close-in to Israel will not be relinquished in any negotiated settlement. This became clear during the Annapolis conference in 2008 and at all attempts at talks since then. And even if annexation were to occur, that would not preclude the formation of a Palestinian state at some point in the future.
For the past almost four years, the Palestinian Authority has given a cold shoulder to the Trump administration’s efforts to get peace negotiations with Israel started, and then shut down completely on Trump’s “deal of the century” peace plan.
The Palestinian Authority made it clear that it would simply wait out the Trump administration. The old line that “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” has never rung truer.
In the meantime, the world has moved on. Iranian aggression in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen has recalibrated threats and challenges in the region.
Regional strategic alignments are changing, and Israel’s place in the region – in that camp that recognizes the Iranian threat to what we used to call pro-Western countries – has marginalized the decades-long urgency to place the Palestinian issue front and center.
Except in Europe. Its recent threats and bullying of Israel suggest a disconnect from the strategic reality on the ground. A two-state solution today may mean something different than it did 10 or 20 years ago.
The decades-long absence of goodwill on the Palestinian side, and the continued presence of Hamas in Gaza, means Israel must have a security presence in the Jordan Valley. For the same reasons, demilitarization of whatever Palestinian entity that may result from a negotiation is now a given. And a right of return for Palestinians and their descendants who fled the state of Israel when it was created in 1948 will not happen.
Two months out, we still have no clear indication of exactly what “annexation” will actually mean. It might include the Gush Etzion bloc and the city of Maale Adumim only, both large population centers very close to Jerusalem. Other options abound. Or, the whole idea could become moot, with the can being kicked down the proverbial road.
What we do know is that Europe, which has nothing to show for its now four-decade support of Palestinian statehood, has failed in getting any return on its investment by convincing the Palestinian leadership to drop its nihilistic war against the existence of a Jewish state and negotiate an end to the conflict.
As important, Europe seems incapable – or worse, unwilling – to persuade the Palestinians to do what they’ve refused to do until now, which is to finally level with their people about what is do-able and what is fantasy. Only by doing this will Palestinian leaders begin bettering the lives of those they’ve used over decades to advance their own positions of status and power. The way to do this is by ending the conflict with Israel.
Europe has not held the Palestinians accountable, despite protestations to the contrary. As they give a free pass to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank – which continues to glorify and venerate those who have carried out acts of terror not only against Israelis, but Europeans and Americans as well – European governments have retreated into their familiar role of hectoring Israel.
Whatever one might think of annexation, Europe’s sanctimonious threats to Israel of sanctions, recalling ambassadors and worse will not move the conflict one inch closer to resolution. Israel deserves better from Europe, where anti-Semitism is rife.
Much of European anti-Semitism is connected to the steady drumbeat of anti-Israel rhetoric on the Internet and over the public airwaves – and from statements of political figures – that have created a threatening environment for Jewish communities across the continent.
To use a cliché from our times, it’s time for Europe to get real. With all the uncertainty swirling around us, are bluster and threats to a sister democracy – which happens to be sandwiched in the midst of chaos on all sides – a constructive use of its time? Better to level with the Palestinian leadership, rather than indulging it and raising its expectations.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis on Foxnews.com.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
In the Times of Israel, B'nai B'rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin writes:
The best word to describe it would be chutzpah.
In a letter to British daily newspaper The Guardian, 50 former European foreign ministers and government leaders castigated the Trump administration’s long-awaited peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The letter asserts the Trump plan favors one side, and “has characteristics similar to apartheid — a term we don’t use lightly.”
Amongst the signatories are a number of longtime, incessant critics of Israel who, when in power, seemingly did little to hide their bias toward the Jewish state. Indeed, some – early on – applied “apartheid state” to describe Israel and rarely, if ever, criticized the Palestinian side for its intransigence toward good faith negotiations with Israel.
Read the full op-ed here.
My earliest recollection of hearing about the Holocaust came in the mid-1950s, as our family sat around the Passover Seder table. My parents had invited my mother’s best friend to join us that evening, and I remember listening intently to the discussion about families lost and the devastation wrought by Nazi rule throughout Europe.
That mental image reappeared when I read that Amazon UK had taken down a promotion by the company Harma Art for the sale of T-shirts and hoodies bearing a silkscreened reproduction of “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa,” one of the most widely circulated photos of Nazi brutality.
A lone Jewish victim sits on the edge of a ravine with his face to the camera, as a member of a Nazi Einsatzgruppe (the SS paramilitary death squad) is about to shoot him in the back of the head. Fourteen other Einsatzgruppen troops stand behind the one with the pistol, about to witness just one more brutal killing in a day that must have taken hundreds, if not thousands of innocent victims.
That photo always gets to me. It personalizes the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust to one terrified victim. For a brief moment, you can try to imagine the fear that each individual experienced just before death.
What did Harma Art intend when it had those T-shirts and hoodies manufactured? Was it looking to market that apparel to Neo-Nazis and anti-Semitic far-right operatives who might don the shirts at rallies and demonstrations?
It’s not readily apparent. The blurb that accompanied photos of the merchandise promoted it this way: “Choose from our great collection of authentic designs and stand out from the crowd!”
Shock value! Be the first in your neighborhood to wear a hoodie with a photo of a Jew about to be shot!
The ease with which this marketing pitch was made tells us volumes about the global trivialization and desecration of the Holocaust, even while there are still survivors with tattoos on their arms who witnessed the worst moral depravity in history.
We saw an early indication of what was to come in 1965, with the airing of the comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes” on CBS, with its bumbling Nazi characters. Later, in 1995, “Seinfeld” undermined the depravity of Nazis by introducing a mean shop proprietor, labeling him “the Soup Nazi.”
In the nearly 25 years since, we’ve seen dozens of examples of Holocaust-related terms, or the word “genocide” being applied to situations that are neither appropriate nor analogous.
Israel often is the target of such intentionally misplaced opprobrium. Its defensive barrier is compared to being akin to the Warsaw ghetto.
Editorial cartoonists have been engaged in this for some time, with depictions of Israeli soldiers as Nazis. One that I particularly recall was in the Danish newspaper Politiken. In a play on another famous photo from the Holocaust, in which Nazi soldiers, with guns pointed, are rounding up Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, and a young boy has his hands up, this cartoon substitutes Palestinians for Jews, and Israeli soldiers for Nazis.
And then there was the homework assignment in Oswego County, New York, that asked students to make arguments for or against the “Final Solution.”
Even members of Congress are not immune to the spread of this kind of trivialization. In the debate over health care reform, members from both parties traded barbs that contained Holocaust-era imagery, including references to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, “the big lie,” and appeasement (as in the Munich Pact, which preceded the outbreak of war in Europe).
Comparisons of undocumented immigrant detention centers to Nazi concentration camps is the most recent example. Pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) legislation introduced in Congress only weeks ago alluded to the need for imposing an economic boycott of Israel, just as we had done with Nazi Germany (and the Soviet Union and South Africa).
Notwithstanding efforts in many places to institute Holocaust education programs, the passage of time has presented Jewish educators and organizations with a tremendous challenge.
A poll commissioned by the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany (known as the Claims Conference) found that among American millennials, “22 percent have not heard of or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust.” Further, 41 percent in the poll “believe that 2 million Jews or less were killed in the Holocaust.” And 49 percent could not name one concentration camp or ghetto. An astounding 66 percent were not able to identify the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Research in Canada, Austria and Germany revealed somewhat similar findings. Millennials in the latter two countries felt overwhelmingly that Holocaust education was important (many had participated in such programs); yet in Austria, 17 percent of those polled believed that only “100,000 or fewer Jews were murdered” in the Holocaust.
And that brings us back to the Internet offering for clothing adorned with the searing photo from Vinnitsa. The passage of time, 24/7 coverage of civil wars, executions and a daily plethora of amateur videos of shootouts and shoot-ups that come to us as “Breaking News” have dulled the senses to genocides and violence of historic proportions.
And though there are dueling arguments about the effect of video games, can one really doubt that such fare at least makes young people inured to violence, past or present?
Four decades ago, when I began my career in community relations, I used to have a line in my speeches that said: “There’ll come a time when the last survivor, who was there and could tell us about what he or she experienced, will be gone. And then there will be no one here to answer, with first-person authority, the Holocaust minimizers and deniers.”
We’re close to that point. We need to redouble our efforts, at every level, to educate and remember. Media outlets cannot be flippant or careless when these images and comparisons are aired.
The mega-Internet community, already under fire for allowing “anything goes” content policies to prevail over common sense and good taste, needs to be far more vigilant than it claims it is. And officeholders, at every level, need to dial back completely the kind of harmful hyperbole which often gets a pass for being just good old political rhetoric.
The slippery slope of Holocaust trivialization is upon us. We owe it to the victims, and ourselves, to ensure now that it be reversed.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
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