Thoughts on Yom HaShoah

Thoughts on Yom HaShoah

We come to Yom HaShoah this year differently than we used to.

It would be facile and inaccurate to say that the United States in 2024 is the same as Germany in, say, 1938. We are not a rigid, authoritarian, hierarchical culture, obsessed with the purity of blood. We have some of those elements, true, coming at us from the right side of the political spectrum, as well as based-on-sand theories of intersectionality and colonialism and irradicable whiteness coming from the left, but it’s not the same.

Aside from all the other differences, in this country, at this time — and for the foreseeable future — the police, as well as the military and other government agencies, are on our side.

But the world is changing around us, and we have to pay attention to it.

Abe Foxman of Bergen County, the longtime, now retired head of the Anti-Defamation League — an organization about which the generally sane if self-consciously idiosyncratic website Slate recently posted a story called “The Anti-Defamation League Has Abandoned Some of the People It Exists to Protect” (spoiler: at least according to the story’s own logic and arguments, no, it has not) — has been part of the Claims Conference’s yearly video campaign to raise awareness of the Holocaust. (To be formal, the group’s full name is the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.)

This year, the campaign’s theme is #CancelHate. It features Holocaust survivors like Mr. Foxman talking about Holocaust denial and the dangers of forgetting. “We reached out to several survivors, asking them to express themselves as bearing witness,” Mr. Foxman said. “To survivors, Holocaust denial is a personal assault. Denying that the Holocaust happened is like killing the Jews for a second time. The first time it was physical. Now, they’re denying that they ever existed.” That’s a second murder.

Mr. Foxman offered a brief history of Holocaust denial, which is bookended at one end by the discomfort survivors felt in telling their stories, along with the disinclination listeners felt to hearing them, and at the other by the reality of time.

When survivors finally spoke — first just a few, then a few more, and then with a damn-burst deluge — there was a range of reactions.

“The first wave of Holocaust denials was from the Germans, who just said that it didn’t happen,” Mr. Foxman said. That came from their feelings of guilt; of course they knew. Next, “the Soviets did not deny the Holocaust, but they did deny that Jews were victims. They said the victims were communists.” And then, “the third element was the Arabs. They said that Israel was the result of the Holocaust, so if there had been no Holocaust, there would be no Israel.”

In the United States, the first big wave of denial came from the lying, Hitler-exonerating British historian David Irving, who lost a British libel case against the American Jewish truth-telling historian Deborah Lipstadt. “That was in the 1980s, and there was more literature like his,” including from the lying professor of engineering Arthur Butz, who also said that the Holocaust did not happen. “There was a period when you had ads in college newspapers that denied the Holocaust,” Mr. Foxman said. In 1978, a four-part TV miniseries, “The Holocaust,” “was the first time that national television acknowledged the Holocaust.

“All of that was a stimulus to the survivors to speak up.”

And there was something else, something that has become ever more pressing. “Survivors started feeling that they were running out of time,” Abe said.

Now there are fewer survivors left.

Every single one of them has an extraordinary story. We want to — we must — honor them and also be astounded by them. We must honor the survivors who have died between liberation and now, and we must honor the victims who never were lucky enough to have to live with the trauma of survival.

And while we acknowledge that here and now is not then and there — this is not Nazi Germany, and it’s not likely to be — ensuring that truth takes vigilance, resilience, and courage.

We acknowledge the Shoah survivors among us with awe.


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