Opinion |

How the Survivors Won and Holocaust Denial, and the Politicians, Lost

A few decades ago, building an international consensus to mark the Holocaust was unimaginable. That its commemoration is now a global event is a stark achievement – and a victory for history over its abusers

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Holocaust survivors attend a wreath laying at the death wall at the Auschwitz memorial, site of the Nazi death camp, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation. January 27, 2020
Holocaust survivors attend a wreath laying at the death wall at the Auschwitz memorial, site of the Nazi death camp, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation. January 27, 2020Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Benjamin Netanyahu is not one for expressing gratitude to fellow politicians, unless it’s to President Donald Trump and other fellow strongmen. So his tweet on Thursday thanking the retired Likud minister Silvan Shalom for having led the diplomatic campaign at the United Nations to establish International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 15 years ago, was an anomaly. But Netanyahu indeed had reason to be thankful.

This year, that commemoration day was an opportunity to invite dozens of high-level delegations to Israel – including the presidents of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine – and for Netanyahu to present his own grim and self-serving conclusions from the Jews’ tragedy. It also created an annual global event around the Holocaust that is much bigger than him or any other politician.

It may be taken for granted now that such a day exists, but it wasn’t at all simple 15 years ago. Every word in the UN resolution establishing International Holocaust Remembrance Day was hotly debated. The number of times the word “Jews” would be mentioned was an issue, as was the attention other nations who had suffered during World War II and genocides at other times would receive.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivers a speech during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020Credit: AFP

To win Russian support, the date January 27 was chosen – the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945 – so they could highlight the Red Army’s role as liberators. Great care was taken to court the Arab and other Muslim members of the UN, so they would not be seen as refusing to commemorate the Holocaust. Eventually, most of them voted in favor. A few, including Iran, abstained.

Over the years there have been political controversies over the day – especially in Britain, one of the countries where the government endorsed it as a national remembrance day as well. For a number of years, the Muslim Council of Great Britain refused to take part and far-left politicians, including Jeremy Corbyn, tried to get it renamed “Genocide Memorial Day,” removing the unique mention of the Jewish victims.

And in recent years, Poland and Russia have fought for their own special status. The Poles want Auschwitz to stand as a symbol of their national suffering, at least equal to that of the Jews, and Poland’s nationalist government has even passed legislation to try to establish a convenient historical narrative. The Russians want their role as “liberators” to obscure the fact that, for the first two years of World War II, they partnered with Nazi Germany in dismembering Poland.

But for the most part, these political and diplomatic disputes are background music. Fifteen years since its inauguration, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is now a regular fixture both on the international diplomatic and the national political calendars of many nations. No other genocide or global tragedy has this level of recognition. No other event that took place in the tumultuous 20th century is marked as widely.

As Jews, we see it as only just that the nearly successful plan to industrially exterminate our nation from the face of an entire continent should be recognized in this fashion and serve as a warning for all mankind. But it is far from simple or natural that has become the case. And just a couple of decades ago, it would have been almost unimaginable.

Marking the Holocaust as an event with lasting and wide-reaching implications for the entire world is now almost a matter of consensus. There is regular hand-wringing over surveys in various countries that show various proportions of the local populations are now unaware of how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and other key details. That is the wrong way of looking at it.

Putting up posters bearing names of Jewish children deported by Nazis, displayed on the building in Paris where they lived, on International Holocaust Memorial Day. January 27, 2020 Credit: AFP

The fact a calamity that befell one nation is taught in the history books of other nations, and that they annually mark it and have museums and monuments dedicated to it even if they do not have a direct connection to it, is singular.

The Holocaust is a global brand. So successful that even the Hebrew word for it, Shoah, is widely in use by those who know no other word of Hebrew. Nations around the world that want to have their genocides recognized and commemorated look to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington for guidance and their stamp of approval. It really should not be taken for granted.

In the decades after the end of World War II, there was little desire outside Israel and Jewish communities to give the Holocaust special attention. Every country had its own priorities. If they were on the side of the victorious nations, it was the bravery of their own armed forces; in Britain and Russia, the suffering of their own civilians as well. For the nations that had been under Nazi occupation, there was no eagerness to accord the Jews special attention. And then, of course, for the members of the Axis, guilt, blame and rehabilitation of reputations took precedence over the Jews.

And then there was politics. Recognizing that there had been something different and uniquely evil about the extermination of the Jews would have repercussions, receive pushback and trigger revisionism.

York Minster's Leanne Woodhurst helps light some of the 600 candles in the shape of the Star of David, in memory of more than 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazi. Chapter House, York Minster, Jan. 23,Credit: Danny Lawson,AP

The Soviet Union, which saw the war as part of an ideological struggle, wanted the Jews subsumed into the category of “victims of fascism.” As anti-imperialism became the prevailing orthodoxy in wide swaths of political and academic thought, competing genocides and racisms began jostling for space in the victimhood sweepstakes. And of course, there were those who feared that giving too much attention to the Jews’ genocide would strengthen the Jewish claim to a sovereign state in their ancient homeland. Hence attempts on both the left and right to either deny the Holocaust, downplay its uniqueness or, as a last resort, portray the Israelis as latter-day Nazis and accuse the Jews of not having “learned from the Holocaust.”

Seventy-five years since the liberation of Auschwitz, it’s time not just to learn from the Holocaust but to learn from how the Holocaust has been commemorated. If the grandiose international events of the last few days prove anything, it is that those who tried to deny and downplay the Shoah have failed spectacularly.

The fact it is now being commemorated so widely is a rare positive sign of how Western civilization has developed in recent decades. The efforts of survivors to bear witness, of historians and educators to research and publicize, of both independent “Nazi-hunters” and, at different periods, some governments to track down the perpetrators, have all combined to produce a body of commemoration that can never again be denied.

Children lay roses at the Holocaust Memorial monument in downtown Thessaloniki. The Nazis murdered 65,000 Greek Jews, of whom 50,000 lived in Thessaloniki. January 26, 2020Credit: AFP

It is important not to take this for granted, because the success of fixing the Holocaust’s memory in global consciousness does not mean that its legacy still cannot be abused. This year, the leaders of Israel, Russia and Poland have all to varying degrees abused this legacy, co-opting it to serve their political agenda. But they are unlikely to succeed in obscuring history.

Vladimir Putin’s bullying won’t make the world forget the perfidy of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, or the fact that the Red Army may have liberated Eastern Europe from Nazi Germany but also enforced decades of communist dictatorship. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party won’t succeed in whitewashing the pogroms and collaboration of Polish citizens against their Jewish neighbors. And Netanyahu will ultimately fail in his attempts at expropriating the Holocaust to serve as justification for his policies.

All the individuals, organizations and governments who combined together to create a lasting monument have created something stronger than the politicians.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day has become testament to the survivors’ success not only in rebuilding their lives, but in recording their stories, and the stories of those who were murdered, for posterity. Soon they will not be with us anymore, but they have finally won. No politician can take it away from them.

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