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Challenging Public Figures' Holocaust Ignorance and Manipulation

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White House press secretary Sean Spicer prepares to apologize on cable news at the White House for an "insensitive" reference to the Holocaust having stated Hitler hadn't used chemical wCredit: Andrew Harnik/AP

November 11, 1944, Stopce

"I don’t remember if I already wrote the date when our dearest were murdered. Our blood began to flow from the first day of the war. During the first days of the German-Polish war, our dear brother Nahman was murdered. He was murdered near Mawa. On 27/VI 41, the day the German bandits occupied our town, Rivka z”l [may her memory be blessed], Moyshele’s wife, was shot, and little Miriam’ke (Mimken) became an orphan. Our dear father was murdered on the 12th of July 1942, in his own home. A drunk bandit entered the home and murdered Father. The general slaughter in our town began on the 23rd of September 1942. On that day, we had already lost everything. I cannot write any more about it. Keep strong, my dears! And strengthen us! We must be a living testament for the world. Perhaps a day will come when we will be able to shout, tell everything for history, the whole truth.

Yours, Azriel Tunik

In this letter published by Yad Vashem in After So Much Pain and Anguish: First Letters after Liberation (2016), Azriel Tunik poignantly told his siblings in Mandatory Palestine about the murder of their loved ones in German-occupied Belarus. He expressed what many Holocaust survivors felt was their paramount duty: to summon the strength to tell the world about the destruction of the Jews.

Over seven decades have passed since Tunik wrote his letter, and many aspects of the Holocaust have been recounted, not only by survivors, but also through scholarly research and the imagination of great writers, poets, playwrights and film-makers. The Holocaust is taught in many countries, and 31 countries are members of IHRA, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is dedicated to Shoah research and education.

Isaiah 56:5: "And to them will I give a memorial and a name (Yad Vashem) ... that shall not be cut off." Visitors to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

There is awareness of the Holocaust even in the far corners of the world, and I have been privileged to speak to attentive audiences in China, Ghana, and Ethiopia. The Holocaust, as we all know, has become a touchstone for discussion about the human capacity for evil.

However, the fact that in many places there is a recognition of the Holocaust does not necessarily mean that people know much about it. Even in places much closer to the stage upon which the events occurred, people frequently have only a very vague idea of what the Holocaust was.

For a recent survey of high-school students in the UK, where the teaching of the Holocaust has been on the curriculum for over 25 years, Paul Salmons and his team from UCL found that even though 85% of the students had learned about the Holocaust, their knowledge remained very limited. Most knew that Jews were the primary victims, but they did not know why; and many did not even know the meaning of the word 'anti-Semitism'. 

In a recent lecture, Salmons suggested that the failure is not because the students are not bright enough, but because many teachers are deficient in their teaching, or uninterested or even hostile to the subject.

A woman places flowers on a rail at Thessaloniki's old train station marking 74 years since the roundup and deportation of its Jews to Nazi extermination camps during World War II. March 19, 2017Credit: Giannis Papanikos/AP

Given this situation, why should anyone be surprised when public figures speak about the Holocaust with glaring inaccuracy, or misappropriate or manipulate it for their own reasons? One could argue that this is the price for a wider awareness of the Holocaust. But must it be this way?

Undoubtedly education, perhaps better education, is key. The quality training of educators, each of whom in turn touches students and colleagues in an extensive ripple effect, is crucial. So, teacher training has emerged as a central element at Yad Vashem and its sister institutions. The recent advent of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCS), like that created by Yad Vashem and Tel Aviv University, the use of social media as a forum for furthering knowledge, and other non-traditional educational initiatives are also important.

No less so are attempts to reach people who in the future will be 'movers and shakers,' like young politicians, civil servants and journalists, to help them become more knowledgeable and sensitive about how they invoke the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, therefore, regularly holds seminars for such groups.

Nevertheless, in a world where celebrity reigns supreme, finding the means to help the vast majority of people in the public eye speak more accurately and thoughtfully about the Holocaust remains an ongoing challenge.

Ken Livingstone, then London Mayor, leaves a press conference having emphatically refused to apologize for comparing a Jewish newspaper reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard. Feb. 22, 2005Credit: AP

The Holocaust was a very particular event with profound universal ramifications. In order to address those ramifications meaningfully, one must know and discuss the details of history.

It is the details of Tunik's letter that allow us to gain a sharper appreciation of what actually happened to his family, the Jews of Stopce, the Jews of Belarus and other areas of the Former Soviet Union that fell to Nazi Germany. It is the individuals, the dates and the recalling of specific experiences that resonate with us. In our mind's eye, we can see a drunken Belorussian entering the Tunik home and murdering the father. We can feel pain for Miriam’ke, the little orphan girl, and we can identify keenly with Tunik's drive to bear witness.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do to help maintain thoughtful and accurate public discourse about the Holocaust is to remember and remind others that the Holocaust was about real people, real events, real cruelty, real suffering and real murder.

Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front (Yad Vashem, 2013), and co-editor with Dr. Iael Nidam Orvieto of After So Much Pain and Anguish: First Letters after Liberation (Yad Vashem, 2016).