My Word: Preserving the (real) memory

To keep the truth of the Holocaust alive gets harder as the generation that survived it dies out.

A woman prays in front of a wall bearing the names of victims during Holocaust Memorial day at Budapest's Holocaust Memorial Center (photo credit: REUTERS)
A woman prays in front of a wall bearing the names of victims during Holocaust Memorial day at Budapest's Holocaust Memorial Center
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over the past year I have received three e-mails from three different people on three continents urging me, in one form or another, to preserve the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Each of the senders is someone close to me, whose intentions were undoubtedly the purest - to stop the memory of the Holocaust dying out with the victims. But every time I hit "reply" rather than "forward."
Two of the e-mails told the story of Irene Sendler, a Righteous Gentile, who braved death and survived torture to help smuggle 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler died on May 12, 2008, at 98, and her blessed memory lives on not only through the families of those she saved, but also in the form of the chain letter wandering around cyberspace. The third "in memoriam" e-mail I received carried a picture of an Auschwitz survivor, a number tattooed indelibly on her forearm, and a similar message along the lines of "Don´t forget, for the sake of future generations."
So why did I not, as urged, "take a minute to pass this along" to 10 friends?
It wasn´t, of course, that I wanted to delete the reminder of genocide. It was the nature of the comments attached at the end of the e-mail.
"It is now more than 60 years after the Second World War in Europe ended. This e-mail is being sent as a memorial chain, in memory of the 6 million Jews, 20 million Russians, 10 million Christians and 1,900 Catholic priests who were murdered, massacred, raped, burned, starved and humiliated with the German and Russian peoples looking the other way!
"Now, more than ever, with Iraq, Iran and others, claiming the Holocaust to be ´a myth,´ it´s imperative to make sure the world never forgets, because there are others who would like to do it again."
The Holocaust was not a myth. But this e-mail does nothing to combat it. Just read between the lines: "the 6 million Jews, 20 million Russians, 10 million Christians and 1,900 Catholic priests."
As I pointed out to the first person who sent me the e-mail, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, who grew up never knowing her maternal grandparents or even what had happened to them: World War II claimed many millions of victims (including, for that matter, German children who died too young to understand the madness in which they were caught up). The Holocaust wiped out 6 million Jews, because they were Jews.
Nothing else compares to the systematic attempt to erase Jews as a people, except, perhaps, Hitler´s efforts to rid the world of Gypsies and homosexuals. The 20 million Russians did not die because of a satanic plan to eradicate all signs of the Russian people and their culture. The 10 million Christians (and why the 1,900 Catholic priests aren´t included in this category remains a mystery) were not killed for their religious beliefs.
The numbers are horrendous but in the modern, feel-good attempt to include all victims, there is a serious danger of deflecting attention from why the term "genocide" had to be created to describe the Shoah.
As Elie Wiesel once pointed out: The Shoah wasn´t a crime against humanity, but a crime against the Jews.
IT IS nearly 65 years since the end of World War II. On January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet forces, the UN will for the fifth time mark Holocaust Day "as a constant reminder to prevent future genocides."
As usual, the day will be marked with the message that the Holocaust was not just a Jewish experience but something from which the whole world can learn. And indeed many of the UN ambassadors represent countries where anti-Semitic crimes are on the rise, sometimes under the guise of anti-Israeli acts, sometimes not disguised at all.
But everyone can feel good about remembering the 6 million dead Jews - even if the Jewish state is constantly blasted in the same halls. And even if Holocaust-denying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has more than once stepped up to the same podium before returning home to continue work on his plans to "wipe the Zionist state off the map" with nuclear weapons.
In Israel, Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked according to the Hebrew calendar on 27 Nisan, in the spring, fittingly between Passover and Independence Day. Israelis, however, have not made the Holocaust the focus of their existence. Perhaps the early generations were too ashamed of the Diaspora experience, maybe Israelis have been too busy over the years struggling to survive and mourning the dead of other wars forced upon them.
The Shoah is part of the Israeli psyche and it does not need e-mail reminders to keep the memory alive. Every year, the country halts and stands to attention as the siren sounds in memory of the 6 million. The names of every known Jewish victim are read out aloud, hour after hour after hour. Six million names of people who had lives, loves and dreams.
But these are extraordinary times. The Holocaust is being hotly debated in the virtual world. Just last month, an Arbeit Macht Frei sign, touted as "similar to the one in Auschwitz" was offered for sale on eBay. In the real world, the original sign was stolen from above the gates of the death camp in Poland and although it was later recovered, it was a clear reminder that there are sick minds out there.
When James von Brunn, the 89-year-old man accused of killing security guard Stephen T. Johns at Washington´s Holocaust Museum, died in a prison hospital last month his lawyer reportedly described the death as "a sad end to a tragic situation."
John Ivan Demjanjuk, on trial in Germany for abetting the murder of at least 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor death camp, is also playing the age card for all its worth. The victims did not have a chance to grow old.
SHOAH IS chic. Or at least handy. The "siege on Gaza" is constantly compared by pro-Palestinian activists to the Holocaust. Their cause is helped by people like the International Solidarity Movement´s Hedy Epstein, the hunger-striking 85-year-old woman who "survived" the Holocaust in London where she arrived in 1939.
The Holocaust accusations test the meaning of the word chutzpah to its utmost limits. The Palestinians might have suffered under Israeli control - as they did under Egyptian rule before that - but Israelis are not Nazis. Individuals have been humiliated but they did not struggle to survive starvation and roundups leading to death camps. They fired rockets on Israel. Gaza under Israeli control was no Nazi- run ghetto - just as surely as it is no happy holiday camp under Hamas.
To keep the truth of the Holocaust alive is particularly hard as the generation that survived it dies out and their stories are replaced by the Hollywood version.
The Holocaust did not have a happy ending. As writer Haim Gouri notes, Israel was created not because of the Holocaust but in spite of it.
If there was a bright spot recently it was the fact that nearly 65 years after what singer Yehuda Poliker immortalized as "Hamilhama hahi" - That War - the German and Israeli cabinets last week held a joint meeting in the Federal Republic. You can move on, even when carrying emotional baggage.
The message "Never again" is perfect for the Twitter age. But the real message today needs to change from "Never forget" to "Never trivialize."
That would be the most fitting tribute to the true victims and heroes.