January 27th marked the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Notably, this day carries little significance in Israel. There are no national ceremonies or moments of silence to commemorate the Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Israel has a dual relationship with the Holocaust. On the one hand, the Holocaust is commonsensical to Israelis. For 2,000 years Jews were ostracized and attacked by world nations. At times, these took the form of a local pogrom; a random and violent assault on Jews in a small Ukrainian village brought about by the consumption of alcohol or the celebration of Christian holidays. Other times such attacks were orchestrated by the state, as was the case under Czar Nicholas the 2nd. The Nazis did no invent the pogrom. True to the modern world, they merely industrialized it. In this sense, the Holocaust was the final, inevitable and most horrid stage in the pogrom’s long evolution.
On the other hand, the Holocaust remains unfathomable. Israelis cannot fully comprehend how the will to live could carry an individual from his home to the Ghetto and, ultimately, to the death camps. Even more beguiling is the fact that Holocaust survives resumed the labor of living. They rejoined the world rather than retreat from it. Survivors formed new families, engaged in new carriers and discovered new wonders all the while carrying within them the last traces of a glorious Jewish civilization that was sacked by the Nazis. And though many Israeli students visit Auschwitz, they can never fully comprehend what life looked like within it. Thus, like the speed of light, Israelis can only approximate the Holocaust but never reach it.
On the global arena, however, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed by many states and diplomatic institutions. As nations commemorated this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, their diplomats went online to note the importance of the day and explain why the Holocaust is deserving of its own, global remembrance day. The digital activities of three nations demonstrate how national memories impact online, diplomatic communications.
The first is Germany. A tweet published by the German Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, quoted Chancellor Merkel as feeling ‘ashamed’ that the Holocaust was perpetrated by Germans. The term ‘shame’ is regularly employed by German diplomats when referencing the Holocaust. In diplomacy terms matter and it is, perhaps, for this reason that German officials never employ the term ‘guilt’, as guilt implies complicity. The German memory states that modern Germany cannot be judged for the sins of its fathers. As such, the Holocaust should play no role in Germany’s global image or standing in the world. Yet it is ‘shame’ that compels Germany to combat antisemitism wherever, and whenever it rears its ugly face.
IN RECENT years, Japan has also taken to Twitter on January 27th. More than once, Japanese Embassies have tweeted the image of Chiune Sigihara, a Japanese diplomat who risked his life by issuing transit visas to Jewish families fleeing the Nazis. Japan never mentions the role it played in WW2 online, nor does it reflect on how its actions prolonged the Holocaust. Engaged in a war in the Pacific, America and the Allies ultimately invaded Europe in mid-1944, reaching the camps in early 1945.
It is hard to calculate how many lives would have been saved had the Battle of Midway never been fought. And so, Japan choses to remember, and remind us, of those few instances in which it saved Jewish lives. Like Germany, Japan too contends that WW2 was a shameful era, but one that does not reflect contemporary Japan which is nowadays associated with Sony PlayStations rather than Kamikaze pilots.
Another nation currently struggling with its memory of WW2 is Poland. In recent years, the Polish government has invested heavily in digital campaigns meant to distance Poland from the atrocities of WW2. According to these campaigns, and the new national memory being molded by the current government, Poland was the first victim of Nazi Germany. Moreover, of the 6 million Jews who perished, 3 million were Polish citizens. Lastly, Poles were never Hitler’s willing executioners.
On the opposite, the Polish resistance continuously attacked the Nazi occupation. In some ways, this campaign has backfired. The more Poland argues it had no role in the Holocaust, the more it is associated with the Holocaust. This could explain why the new Polish memory of WW2 was absent from all diplomatic tweets published on January 27th. Instead of discussing the occupation of Poland and its suffering under the Nazis, Polish Embassies in Europe and the UN settled for honoring the memory of the dead, and locating a Polish diplomat who also saved Jewish lives by issuing transit visas.
Israel on its part, handed over control of the official @Israel Twitter account to a 92 year-old Holocaust survivor. Throughout the day he recounted his memories of being forced to eat pork and surviving the ‘selection’ at the entry to Auschwitz. There was something fitting in this gesture. The last of the survivors are dying and with them so will all first-witness account of the Holocaust.
Through its digital activities, the Israeli MFA ensured that the proof of Auschwitz would be heard, possibly for the last time. Indeed, a new generation of Israelis is growing up with no tangible link to the Holocaust as their grandparents were mostly born in post-1948 Israel. As the survivors die, Israel’s memory of the Holocaust will alter as well and January 27th may become an important date in Israel, one in which all nations try to approximate the Holocaust without being able to do so.
The writer is a digital diplomacy scholar at the University of Tel Aviv and a member of Oxford University’s Digital Diplomacy Research Group.