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.
President Op-ed in InsideSources: Facebook, Twitter on the Right Side of History With Bans on Holocaust Denial
Anti-Semitism’s lengthy history is built on ignorance and the perpetuation of lies by people who hate Jews. It’s a disease far more incurable than a pandemic.
Over the centuries, despots disliked a people whose theology introduced a code of morality and justice that flipped civilizations. From pharaohs to Hitler and too many others to name, rulers responded with force and power, mostly sentencing Jews to slavery, ghettos and death.
Today, people continue to foment hate fueled by ignorance and lies, and still targeting Jews. The weapon of choice for ignorance and lies is a platform of recklessness called social media. Oh sure, when used responsibly, social media is a very productive tool. Such responsible behavior is not common these days.
But on Oct. 12, Facebook, with its users representing one-third of the world’s 7.8 billion people, decided to do something really bold about this recklessness by simply acting responsibly — the social media platform decided not to allow people to lie about the Holocaust.
Days later, Twitter announced its “hateful conduct policy” issued its own prohibition of “attempts to deny or diminish” violent events, including the Holocaust. Twitter has taken aim primarily at white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Facebook’s Monika Bickert announced in a blog a hate speech policy update, specifically “to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.”
The company’s decision was prompted by the recent rise in anti-Semitism, not just vandalism or insults, but shootings and physical attacks, and an “alarming level of ignorance about the Holocaust.” Bickert noted a recent survey that showed that one in four American adults between ages 18 and 39 believed the Holocaust is a myth.
One might wonder how on earth is this ignorance possible in the United States?
For decades, survivors have made presentations. Newsreel footage starkly shows the horrifying, shocking images. Books on the subject fill libraries. Two-thirds (34) of the states in the U.S. mandate some form of Holocaust or genocide education.
About the same number of states have impressive museums, mostly in major population centers, or monuments seen by many others. The 16 U.S. states without such mandates have less population cumulatively than California.
There are 43 countries in the world with Holocaust museums or memorials. In Europe, Germany boasts 22 memorials and museums. France has 13 Holocaust memorials or museums. Greece has 10 museums and monuments. Those numbers don’t include memorials and displays in synagogues and temples.
Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center — makes available “ready to print” exhibitions. Auschwitz-Birkenau is widely visited, but the solemnity of this hallowed earth is lost with eye-catching signage that welcomes tour buses.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has exhibitions ready for travel. Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation has created captivating holographic interviews of survivors that will give life to eyewitness accounts long after survivors take their final breaths.
The United Nations and its agencies, notably UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization), with all of its flaws, embraces Holocaust education with permanent displays of art and various publications.
In May, the latest Holocaust-related legislation passed in Congress was the Never Again Education Act. More than 30 countries have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
Despite all of the access to information, what has the world learned? It has learned that ancient hate thrives in the modern world.
So, Facebook’s banning of Holocaust denial is an important, courageous act of media leadership.
It’s been a long time coming and B’nai B’rith International has long advocated such a move. CEO Mark Zuckerberg is to be commended, though the company admits that enforcing the policy, policing the platform, will be quite a challenge.
Twitter’s announcement is equally welcome. But if the bright Facebook and Twitter coders can write algorithms and direct users with hashtags and other tools, they should be able to identify keywords that will curb the volume of hate posts before they hit the digital universe.
Germans worked hard to keep the Holocaust secret.
Rumors swirled as work camps becoming death camps — Dachau, Chelmo, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Auschwitz — were shockingly real. But the Nazi’s own record-keeping carefully lays out the horrific truth of the Holocaust.
Nazis even documented mass shootings, starvations, experimental surgeries, the crematoria, the piles of skeletal bodies. Thousands of camps dotted Nazi-controlled European countries. Eleven million people, more than six million Jews, were systematically murdered.
Of course anti-Semitism didn’t begin, or end, with the Holocaust, and rulers have been complicit in Jew hatred for thousands of years.
With the modern Jewish State of Israel maturing nicely at 72, the lies that generated anti-Semitism continue today from across the political spectrum, from extreme Islamists and with U.N. resolutions denying any ancient Jewish connection to the Western Wall, not to mention any Jewish roots there in general.
The United Nations could and should learn from the example of Facebook. Resolutions that deny undeniable Jewish history insult the U.N. mission. As for other media — all media — they should learn from the Facebook and Twitter examples.
For a media platform that could never police itself adequately from lies, rage baiting and hate — all things wrong — Facebook got this one right.
And Twitter followed.
Read Charles' expert analysis in InsideSources.
Charles O. Kaufman is president of B'nai B'rith International.
The Gamaraal Foundation in Switzerland has set up a 24-hour telephone hotline to provide support to Holocaust survivors during the coronavirus pandemic. The hotline can be accessed by calling +41 44 931 37 35 or visiting https://gamaraal.com.
The Gamaraal Foundation was created in 2014 with the mission of supporting Holocaust survivors in need in Switzerland as well as engaging in Holocaust education. The foundation earned the prestigious Dr. Kurt Bigler award for excellence in Holocaust education in 2018, together with the archives of contemporary history at the ETH Zürich.
Many Holocaust survivors show incredible resilience in the current situation. I deeply admire the positivity they show. They say we had much more difficult times. I am so proud of the many dozens of volunteers and the team of the Gamaraal Foundation, which has worked nonstop. Many of the volunteers are students and young professionals, the solidarity between the generations is immense and this is deeply touching. This is so crucial now, more than ever before, heartwarming and overwhelming for me to see. I am immensely grateful to all those giving their time to help.
The gratitude that we receive from survivors cannot be put into words. It goes directly to the heart. Most of our work is listening by phone to the survivors, taking them out of loneliness and isolation. The coronavirus pandemic can evoke painful memories among Holocaust survivors. Some are experiencing renewed trauma – the loneliness and isolation which they face during difficult experiences can be exacerbated due to the past they were forced to endure. Volunteers also assist survivors with buying food or medicine.
With demand for assistance on the rise, the volunteers’ team will be expanded in the coming days.
For more information:
Anita Winter is a B'nai B'rith International Geneva representative and founder and president of the Gamaraal Foundation.
With the commemoration of 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz just behind us, it’s becoming clear that there is a revisionist trend sweeping Europe.
The arc of post-World War Two history, however sluggish and bumpy, has generally bent in the direction of acknowledging responsibility. While tensions persist in many regions still today, European states have progressively come forward professing their role in the Holocaust and have taken steps, big and small, towards restitution and reconciliation. It’s futile to try to evaluate the degree of genuine remorse versus the pressure exercised by international standards or by public opinion in a changing national landscape; regardless, by and large, states have moved towards assuming their roles as collaborators or enablers of the Nazis.
But with a short historical memory and political sensibilities at play, recent years have brought to light just how fragile this path towards a universally accepted single, factual narrative is.
A Look to the National Level
You will remember the uproar caused in 2018 by a Polish law: a law seemingly excepting Poland from its historical responsibility, and that initially criminalized such expressions as “Polish death camps” or “Polish concentration camps.” While indeed these specific formulations are inaccurate, the anti-Semitism endemic to pre-war, wartime and post-war Poland is a reality. Many Polish collaborators outed, extorted and rounded up Jews for the Nazis. This is a reality that Poland tried to shield itself from and in so doing created an international fiasco.
But the Polish case is by no means singular: The preamble of the Hungarian Basic Law of 2011 states: “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944 (note; the day of the Nazi occupation of Hungary), from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed”. The Hungarian constitution does not directly deny the Holocaust, but the culpability of the Hungarian state for the organised murder of about 600,000 Hungarian Jews, and in so doing has contributed to such negative consequences as the glorification of Nazi collaborators, the rewriting of curricula and the creation of a controversial ‘House of Fates’ museum.
Recent proposed legislation in Lithuania has also caused outrage. A bill drafted in the Seimas, the country’s Parliament, is titled, “The Lithuanian state, which was occupied in 1940-1990, did not participate in the Holocaust,”. Although Lithuania was occupied at the time, several Lithuanian leaders did collaborate with the Nazis. About 70,000 Jews were killed in Ponary forest during the Holocaust by German SS and Lithuanian collaborators. More than 90 percent of the 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered.
On an International Level: Minimization, Instrumentalization
The developments above, taking place at the national level are certainly distressing. What we’ve also seen, however, is the muddying of the waters on an international stage.
Unlike the national level where the actors involved usually come to the table with a nationalist agenda, we are seeing a frivolous depiction of the past on the international level, weaponized to deal with current political clashes – especially in response to Russia flexing its muscles globally and in Eastern Europe in particular.
In September 2019, the European Parliament debated a motion on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe focused on condemning the totalitarian regimes haunting 20th century Europe: Nazism and Stalinism. While the motion is not factually problematic, the tone clearly departs from the preservation of the singularity of the Holocaust. For instance, the motion “calls for a common culture of remembrance that rejects the crimes of fascist, Stalinist, and other totalitarian and authoritarian regimes of the past as a way of fostering resilience against modern threats to democracy” and stresses the importance of “recognising and raising awareness of the shared European legacy of crimes committed by Stalinist, Nazi and other dictatorships.” With these formulations and more, the Parliament is conflating the Holocaust with other 20th century tragedies and thereby depriving the Holocaust of the special focus it warrants.
A perfect example of the difficulties at hand: while intending to emphasize the importance of remembrance, and to protect against revisionist trends today, the European Union falls into its own trap. As we look to the European Union to be one of the main checks in place to guarantee the preservation of the historical record, we must remind policymakers that guarding the memory of the Shoah, and avoiding its instrumentalization at all costs is crucial and foundational to the very essence of the European project.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
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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