Written and Illustrated by Avery Weinman
Today, someone born on the day that Auschwitz was liberated — January 27, 1945 — would be 73 years old. Someone who was ten years old on the day Auschwitz was liberated would today be 83 years old. Someone who was 20 years old on the day Auschwitz was liberated — the same as age I am as I sit down to write this — would today be 93 years old. American Jews, Israeli Jews, and all Jews all over the world need to reconcile that soon, through no other process other than the cruelty of time, there will be no more survivors. And when there are no more survivors, no more living testaments of the Shoah, the task will fall to us — the generations to whom the Holocaust is history and not experience — to stand guard against Holocaust denial and all it entails: revision, misrepresentation, appropriation, and the best efforts of anti-Semites on both the Left and the Right to willfully forget, bury, and distort the lessons the Holocaust taught us about what the modern world is capable of doing to the Jewish people. It falls to us to steadfastly affirm that “Never Again!” means never again.
I think that in coming decades Jews all over the world will be shocked at how quickly and eagerly the non-Jewish world will seize the opportunity to recontextualize and reimagine the Holocaust to fit whatever political framework best benefits them as soon as there is no more living proof. In Jewish communities, where the memories and lessons of the Holocaust are so strong and so foundational to what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century, the idea that the Holocaust could be erased, or delegitimized, or turned into a conspiracy theory, or made into something that only happened “then and with those people” and separated from the contemporary world entirely seems unfathomable. But I would suggest that given what we’re seeing in our time on both the Right and the Left, it’s not unfathomable at all.
On the Right, Holocaust denial has been revitalized by the global trend of populist nationalism’s re-ascendence to the political mainstream. In Eastern Europe — where right-wing nationalist parties have not only re-emerged on the political scene, but have become popular enough amongst the people to become the dominant political parties as is the case in states like Austria, Hungary, and Poland — the return to a nationalist desire to reframe Eastern European histories within grand, romantic notions of heroic pasts has put the objective truth of the Holocaust in these states in jeopardy. Austrian, Hungarian, and Polish complicity in the Holocaust — of which there is no doubt — complicates the romantic nationalist narratives that the contemporary right-wing parties in these states are attempting to craft. So, these right-wing nationalist governments actively engage in Holocaust denial for the sake of the maintenance of their national myth and desire to separate their histories with Nazism, anti-Semitism, and complicity in genocide from the pure national narratives they espouse.
Take, for example, a most recent and most notable example of this trend: the Polish “Holocaust Bill,” which Polish President Andrzej Duda of the nationalist Law and Justice Party signed into effect in early February. The law, which passed fifty-seven to twenty-three with two abstensions in the Polish Parliament, criminalizes speech that suggests Polish complicity or Polish support “in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich” with the potential punishment of a fine and up to three years in prison. The Polish nationalist argument in favor of this legislation is that the Holocaust was perpetrated by the Nazis on Polish soil, and, since the Nazis were distinctly German, Poland and the Polish people should not be held equally accountable for the Holocaust which the Polish nationalists also maintain was an immoral tragedy. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki articulated this argument in a tweet from January 27, 2018, “Auschwitz is the most bitter lesson on how evil ideologies can lead to hell on earth. Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis. Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.” Morawiecki’s tweet exemplifies the desire to explicitly place the entirety of the blame for the Holocaust on the Nazis and to absolve the Poles for what they want to recontextualize as solely Nazi crimes.
This sort of semantic dance around history and the Holocaust diminishes the scholarly accepted truth that Poles — not all, but certainly a significant amount — were anti-Semitic, supported Nazism, and aided in the facilitation of the genocide of the European Jews both before and after the formal conclusion of the Second World War. While the Poles have a proud history of actually being the people who did the most to resist Nazism out of the areas the Nazis occupied during the Second World War, well documented pre-war anti-Semitism among Polish nationalists, endemic Polish indifference to the plight of their Jewish neighbors, and cases like the Jedwabne pogrom where local Poles actively assisted the Nazis in burning roughly three hundred and fifty Jews alive in a barn cannot and should not be diminished for the sake of an exalted Polish identity. The Law and Justice Party’s best efforts to deny the Polish role is indicative of their larger desire to trivialize Poland’s anti-Semitic past altogether by continuously denying any anti-Semitism that ever happened in Poland perpetrated by Poles. Instead, they choose to revise history, remove all traces of Polish involvement, and designate the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism that precipitated it as Nazi crimes only.
On the Left, contemporary anti-Semitism is not nearly as obviously recognizable as the classic Charlottesville brand of angry young white racists chanting “Jews will not replace us” with their torches and retreaded Nazi slogans, but it poses an equally virulent threat to the preservation of the lessons and history of the Holocaust. Today, left-wing anti-Semitism confronts the Holocaust through the avenue of conspiracy theory. This last year alone has been rife with incidents that demonstrate the left-wing propensity to accept and promulgate anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Some examples include: Washington DC Councilmember Trayon White blaming the frigid winter weather on the classic anti-Semitic conspiracy that the Rothschild family somehow controls the weather, the revelation of British Labour Party and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s past support for a wildly anti-Semitic mural that depicts multiple big-nosed, nefarious looking coded-Jews sitting around a table held up by black slaves with an Illuminati-style eye-in-the-pyramid backdrop, and co-founder of the Women’s March Tamika Mallory’s support and refusal to denounce Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who, at the rally Mallory attended, proclaimed Jews are, “responsible for all of this filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out turning men into women and women into men.”
Reactively, these might seem like just a few extreme examples from a few bad actors, but these bad actors are also a federal councilman, the potential future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and one of the founders of the most powerful feminist organization in America; such anti-Semitism from such influential echelons holds weight for the trickle down of this kind of causal anti-Semitic rhetoric to make its way into our media, our everyday opinions, and our governments. But where left-wing acceptance of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories threaten the memories and lessons of the Holocaust is when the conspiracies blend into the thinly veiled and perennially unaddressed line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
Conspiracy theories that do not target Jews-writ-large, but choose to focus on Zionism or the state of Israel as the object of the conspiracy are also rife in our world. For every blatantly anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, there is an equal Zionist conspiracy that proclaims that the Zionists did 9/11 to turn international opinion against Arabs and Muslims as the previously mentioned Farrakhan has argued; that the Mossad assassinated Princess Diana; that the Israel Defense Forces harvests the organs of dead Palestinians in a modern interpretation of the blood libel, as was the unsubstantiated assertion in a 2009 article in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet which they later retracted after the author admitted “… whether it’s true or not – I have no idea, I have no clue;” or that the Zionists either fabricated or facilitated the Holocaust in order to gain international sympathy for the birth of a Jewish state as was the topic of current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ doctoral dissertation: The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism. My co-editor Zach brought up an excellent point to me that contemporary anti-Zionists who feel frustrated that the Israeli government utilizes the Holocaust so strongly in the argument for its existence are poised to be in a position where the discrediting and denial of the Holocaust from an anti-Zionist perspective instead of a more traditionally anti-Semitic perspective becomes popularized on the Left. If this happens, the end result will still be Holocaust denial regardless of whether it stems from an anti-Semitic or an anti-Zionist orientation.
The meteoric rise of all of these trends — right-wing Holocaust denial, right-wing ethno-nationalism, right-wing anti-Semitism, left-wing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, left-wing anti-Zionist conspiracy theories, left-wing failure to differentiate between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and left-wing anti-Semitism — are all coinciding in the era that we are poised to lose the last generation of survivors. I didn’t set out to write this piece with the intention of sounding like an alarmist, but the confluence of all of these factors in our time should give us pause. The erosion of the Holocaust from both the Right and the Left sets us to be like a fuse burning on both ends — the explosion can happen much faster than we realize.
The question is — what can we do? How can we combat these trends and ensure that the memories and lessons of the Holocaust remain valuable and intact even as we lose the living proof? I believe that it is essential for Jews everywhere to maintain that while the lessons of the Holocaust — tolerance, justice, compassion, empathy, courage — are universal, the Holocaust remains a Jewish particular event. The Holocaust could have only happened the way it did, with the totality of the way it did, to the Jewish people as the culmination of centuries long processes of the racialization of the Jewish people, the maturation of anti-Jewish religious prejudice in Europe, German nationalism, and modernity. While the Nazis did target other groups like the disabled, Communists, Poles, and LGBT+ peoples during the Holocaust, none were targeted with as much veracity as the Jews, through such open legal means as the Jews, or with the full intention of total annihilation as the Jews. I also believe that the Holocaust needs to remain memorialized as an unparalleled atrocity and not made equivalent to other genocides; all are tragedies, but the methods, ideological rationalization, and totality of the Holocaust make it unique. Other genocides rival the Holocaust in the number and proportion of people killed, but none represent the same kind of realization of the darkest potentials for technology, science, law, assimilation, diplomacy, and the relationship between non-Jews and Jews as the Holocaust does. Balancing the universal lessons, while simultaneously asserting the particularism, will be essential for Jews to be able to defend the validity of our history and to affirm our own humanity.
But on an immediate and personal note, something we all need to do — both Jew and non-Jew alike — is to keep the memories and lessons of the Holocaust alive now, in our time, while we still have survivors with us. Look at more pictures. Watch more documentary footage. Listen to survivor’s accounts. Learn how the Holocaust intersected with class and race. Learn about the Holocaust outside of Europe. Learn about the Holocaust in the Middle East and North Africa. Learn about how the Allies knew what was happening in the camps months before the camps were liberated, but did nothing to stop it. Learn how nearly every country in the world, including the United States, shut its doors to Jewish refugees, causing untold thousands of deaths. Read more memoirs and poems. Read Anne Frank. Read Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Read If This is a Man. Read Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue.” If you are fortunate enough to have a survivor in your life, learn about their story. Write it down. Record it. Transcribe it. Share it. Ask them for lessons — inscribe them in your heart, teach them to your children, teach them at home and away, when lying down at night and when rising up each day.