Whose Holocaust Is It, Anyway?

Global Holocaust remembrance deters denial and ignorance, but may cost Jews control of their narrative.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Flowers lie on a slab of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2015.
Flowers lie on a slab of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2015.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

KRAKOW – Covering the events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was in many ways a frustrating assignment. Nearly all the 800 journalists gathered from around the world were secluded from the actual ceremony for seven hours, stuck in a press center outside the camp, cut off from contact with the survivors and dignitaries within the main tent that had been built over the camp’s iconic gate house. Interviews with the survivors had been conducted in advance, in many cases weeks before in their home countries, and since the live stream of the events within was available online, with the exception of television broadcasters who had to be seen reporting with the snow-covered barracks in the background, the rest of us could have reported on the event much more effectively from the comfort of our own homes.

It was no different from most large international summits where the press are cordoned off and sequestered, sometimes miles away, from the actual proceedings. Of course we try and give an impression that we are in the middle of things but in reality, at events that include the sort of people who demand and receive protection and privacy, we are not even on the sidelines. And that is what the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation has become, a major gathering of world leaders to which 40 countries sent senior representatives. Putting aside a journalist’s frustrations, that surely is a good thing.

And it wasn’t only at Auschwitz of course. In just about every major capital in the Western world, there were state ceremonies for International Holocaust Remembrance Day with the prime minister or president (if he or she wasn’t in Auschwitz already) in attendance. Thousands of smaller events took place in towns and communities across Europe, North America and Australia, while schools in many countries held special sessions or lessons. Many countries that don’t yet have them are planning their own national memorials and Holocaust museums, and when you consider that some of these nations were not occupied by the Germans in World War Two, this is little short of astonishing.

Who would have imagined that Holocaust denial in the West and the trivialization of the Shoah could have been so emphatically vanquished, and not by legislation, but by a general acceptance that this was a historical event that must serve as an warning for mankind? Yes, it is still sneered at in other parts of the world, especially in Muslim countries, but this attitude is regarded by Westerners as one of the more backward aspects of those societies, like homophobia and discrimination against women.

Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, who represented the Israeli government at Auschwitz, told me on the flight to Poland that 10 years ago, when he, as foreign minister, launched the initiative to have January 27 recognized by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, few Israeli or Western diplomats believed it was possible. But though there were initially demands to include other genocides and attempts to water down the resolution, it eventually passed unanimously (with a few Muslim countries, including Iran, absenting themselves from the vote).

The UN resolution is interesting. It mentions the Jews in only one place, where it says that the General Assembly reaffirms “that the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one third of the Jewish people, along with countless members of other minorities, will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice.”

That was the way the resolution finally passed, by adding in “other minorities.” And there is another word missing from the resolution, and that is “anti-Semitism.” So the Jews and “other minorities” suffered in the Holocaust, but hatred of Jews is not necessarily unique. And while this probably is just another example of how UN bureaucrats split hairs to reach a wording that can be voted on unanimously, there is a cautionary note here as well. Universalizing the memory and lessons of the Holocaust will naturally lead to it becoming less of a Jewish event. It may not be fair and many Jews, myself included, sometimes feel when hearing non-Jews speak of it that we want to shout, “Whose Holocaust is it, anyway?” but it’s unavoidable. In the marketing of history, the Holocaust has become a super-brand, and when a brand becomes so popular and widespread, its original owners lose a degree of control over it. Each of the major players who fought in the Second World War have their specific trauma or victory – the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor, Stalingrad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Holocaust has now transcended all of these to become a global symbol.

And such a symbol, particularly when it is accepted into the consensus of public opinion is also open to abuse. It is hard to argue that the Holocaust should not be used in other contexts, such as it has been wielded over the last year by either side in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, when it is a symbol that all the world is supposed to adopt for ultimate evil. And of course it is hard to make this demand when Israeli politicians routinely use the Holocaust as a reason for Israeli policy, or lack of it.

It will also become more difficult to avoid comparison with and inclusion of other genocides along with the Holocaust. In a sense, as it goes global and mainstream, the Holocaust inevitably loses some of its uniqueness, becoming instead a first among equals of genocides. President Rivlin was acknowledging this in his UN General Assembly speech this week, as part of the United Nations’ own Holocaust Remembrance Day events, in which for the first time an Israeli leader implicitly acknowledged the Armenian genocide.

Fighting against the comparisons being made between the Holocaust and various current events, including, yes, the actions of Israel, is a just fight, but also a losing battle. We can expect more, not fewer comparisons being made in the future, and by respectable figures and news organizations, not just bona fide anti-Semites. It is the inevitable side effect of the success in transforming the Holocaust into a tragedy for all mankind, and the only way of preventing it would be to go back to commemorating the 6 million Jews only within the family.

As the number of living survivors dwindles, we can be heartened by the centrality the Holocaust now has in Western culture, politics and history. We also have to get used to the idea that it doesn’t belong just to the Jews anymore.

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