Guest Post: Challenging the Distortions

(Dr. David Cumin’s speech at the New Zealand opening of ‘River of Tears’, 2018)

17 years ago I visited Auschwitz as part of a two-month backpacking trip around Europe with a friend. It was the only day that we were both completely silent. Not a word was uttered between us the whole day but our personal rivers of tears spoke volumes.

Visiting a place like Auschwitz, with knowledge of what happened there, is powerful. 

But listening to survivors tell their stories brings a level of reality to the unimaginable that is even more emotional than seeing the artefacts of the places where they occurred. Shadows of Shoah brings humanity to the statistics and that is so important for learning and understanding. This event is made even more meaningful, given that it is just over one week since Tisha B’av - the date we remember the destruction of the first and second temples and a day that some kinnot (poems) recall the Shoah.

It is this recalling that is so important. Because we cannot understand if we don’t remember, and without an understanding of history we are ill-equipped to learn lessons and impotent to prevent further lamentations. We must be challenged by this material and confronted by the truth to be better equipped to deal with what seems like a rising tide of consequences from forgetting.

Unfortunately, the work of Shadows of Shoah is needed now more than ever. We exist in a world 54% of Americans have ever heard of the Holocaust and 32% of those believe the event has been greatly exaggerated or is a myth. Those are disturbing statistics and I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers were similar here, given the lack of Holocaust education in New Zealand schools. A knowledge gap is relatively easy to plug but it is no guarantee that “never again” will actually be so. Sadly, today there are worrying signs in Europe from groups that can’t honestly claim to be ignorant.

We are seeing a resurgence of Nazi-esq language in some democratic countries:

The Croatian Jewish community boycotted the Holocaust memorial day event this year because the government erected a memorial plaque that includes the phrase “For Homeland Ready” - a rallying cry by the Ustaša, the fascist organization that collaborated with the Nazis. And Croatia’s former president, Stjepan Mesic, was caught on video questioning the death toll of 60,000 at Jasenovac - so brutal was that camp that Nazi officers referred to it as being like Dante's Inferno.

And just a little bit north of Croatia, Austrian Councillors have been caught sending each other WhatsApp messages glorifying Nazi Germany and singing songs in fraternities with lyrics including “Step on the gas you old Germans, we’ll manage the seventh million”.

While not being outright neo-Nazi, there is denial seeping into legislation in Poland. The government want to prohibit people from accusing the Polish state or people of involvement or responsibility in the Holocaust - essentially rewriting history.

Having neo-Nazis in government is one thing, outright denying responsibility is another, but distorting or minimising the Holocaust by comparing it, for example, to the crimes of Communism is far more pernicious. The Czech government, for example, initiated the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, which minimises the genocide of the Jews by diminishing the uniqueness of the Shoah and deeming it to be equivalent to the deaths under Soviet Communism.

And in the UK, the Labour Party has rejected the full definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. One of the parts they consciously omitted was the example of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. This is a form of the new antisemitism that also falls into the category of what Prof Lipstadt calls “softcore Holocaust denial”.

And this is something we must be alert to as it is sometimes hard to spot. The National Front wanting to wear SS uniforms is easy to stand up to, but the politician comparing Israel to Nazi Germany can be considered reasonable by those without a good understanding; just as Holocaust “revisionists” can be persuasive. Especially when there is no challenge.

Unfortunately, we are not immune from any of these forms of antisemitism in New Zealand.

Pamphlets and posters circulated only last week encouraged people to read a book denying the Holocaust. While we can possibly explain that incident as a few people needing some mental health interventions, we cannot so easily dismiss the fact that Canterbury University still has a Masters Thesis in their library which was awarded first class honours and concludes that “...the Nazis did not systematically exterminate Jews in gas chambers…”.

And the more modern form of antisemitism and ‘softcore Holocaust denial’ - for example, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany - may not be easy to dismiss as a relatively small group of people at one end of some spectrum of a phenomena in a psychiatric handbook, no matter how loud they might be.

In the past month we have seen a Member of Parliament, a senior TV current affairs producer, and a University professor all accuse Israel of committing “genocide”. And in so doing, not only do they unfairly disparage the Jewish nation, but they also disparage the memory of real genocides. They invoke an obscene moral inversion by falsely accusing victims of a unique genocide last century - where industrial scale machinery was invoked and many ordinary people in a civilised country participated in attempts to murder every last person only for being of a certain bloodline - of committing a similar crime against humanity.

As we know from the excellent record keeping of the Germans and the hard work of numerous expert historians, the success of the German National Socialist enterprise was that 6m Jewish lives were taken. When a learned and sane person attributes similar intention, let alone outcome, to Israel we must challenge it.

And when people try to compare the Holocaust to other historical events, to contemporary policies of some countries, or even to “microaggressions”, it is incumbent upon us to be clear that such a comparison distorts history and diminishes the memory of the Shoah.

As Elie Wiesel famously said:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”

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Shadows of Shoah is a great example of love, art, faith, and life. The humanity of the stories are captured and curated with all those virtues in mind. It is the respect, concern, compassion, and hard work that has gone into this exhibit that speaks the loudest and helps protect us all against hate - whether, to paraphrase Rabbi Sacks, it is the old hate of Jews based on religion or race, or the new hate manifest as opposition to a Jewish nation state.

The Shadows of Shoah works do not try to trivialise the memory of the murdered by comparing the systematic Nazi demonisation, boycotts, and eventual murder of Jews and others with everyday racism, discrimination, or provocations. While we must be aware of such societal ills, invoking the Holocaust is absurd.

There are few better ways to challenge the distortions, the rising neo-Nazism, and the softcore denial than to bring the stories to the people in a way that celebrates the survivors and honours the memory of those who were taken.