On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Huffington Post UK is running a series of pieces looking at how we remember the Holocaust: The victims and perpetrators and the untold stories, on what’s likely to be one of the last major commemorations with living survivors.
Coachloads of Holocaust survivors gathered at Auschwitz this week for the 70th anniversary of the concentration camps liberation, to tell their stories to world leaders and the world’s media.
The frailty of so many, wrapped in blankets, carrying sticks or sat in wheelchairs, served to drive home how little time the world has left to hear their stories first hand. When the 80th anniversary comes around, there will be only a handful of the most elderly survivors, who will have only a child’s memory of that horrific period.
Though monumental efforts have been made by Holocaust museums and archivists the world over to preserve stories on film, audio and in print, a survey in May last year by the Anti-Defamation League shows only 54% of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust, and that genocide denial is on the rise.
The research conducted in May 2014, where First International Resources surveyed a staggering 53,000 people in 100 countries, showed 30% of respondents thought “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.”
In the Middle East around 50% of those surveyed said they believed the six million figure had been exaggerated, as did a third of Asians and Africans.
Even in Western Europe, around one third of people disagreed that the Holocaust had been “accurately portrayed”, despite the stringent laws against Holocaust denial that still exist in many European countries thought not in Britain.
Professor Deborah Lipstadt, the eminent Holocaust historian who won a significant court victory over Holocaust denier David Irving, said it was a concern for historians. “The preservation of the history will continue, and I think denial will continue and I don’t think we can predict how much of an upswing there will be. The Armenian genocide is denied by an entire government now [Turkey’s], the whole apparatus of a powerful country is to deny this genocide.
“That’s never happened with the Holocaust though, apart from to a certain extent with Iran. Of course, deniers will try harder and try to do more, but they won’t succeed because the facts are against them.”
Lipstadt said it would be a “great loss” when survivors were no longer there to give testimony to what happened. “They give a perspective that no historian can give and when I teach my class on the history of the Holocaust, I know all my lectures, no matter how scintillating they might have been, are surpassed by a survivor who can say this is my story, this happened to me, I was there.
She drew a parallel with slavery, because there are no first generation slaves still living. “My first cousins are twelve to fifteen years older than me and they grew up on the edge of the South, and they had a gentleman who worked odd jobs for the household who had been born a slave on a plantation. He took them to meet other people who also had been born slaves, and they heard them sing songs and tell stories of their childhood in slavery.
“They had experience of meeting people who had been slaves, and hearing their stories, it was not a history of the nineteenth century for them. But I never had that experience. But this is the tyranny of time. We will lose that voice of Holocaust survivors. Historians have to deal with that.”
For some countries, the answer has been to outlaw any attempt to deny the Holocaust, or minimise its tragedy and horror. As well as Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania, which were
involved in the Holocaust, outlaw its denial. But Holocaust denial is not just illegal in the countries that helped perpetrate it. Belgium, the Czech Republic and Poland all expressly forbid it while other countries make denial of genocides a crime, without specifically mentioning the Holocaust in their laws.
Nor are the statutes all the products of the immediate post-war era. Belgium made it illegal in 1995 and France’s Gayssot Act, which forbids denial of crimes against humanity, was passed in 1990. Hungary passed its law in 2010 and Romania ratified its in 2006.
Spain’s constitutional court struck down a genocide denial law in 2007, making it illegal only to promote such crimes.
Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns holds a rally in front of the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations
In most states where they exist, the laws have been enforced, and there have been over a dozen notable convictions in the past three decades. The offence is rare, but when it is committed, it can result in a jail sentence: Dirk Zimmerman received a nine-month sentence in 2009. Gyorgy Nagy of Hungary was the most recent notable conviction, he received an 18-month suspended sentence in 2013. Two Brits have been subject to court proceedings for Holocaust denial in European countries: the notorious David Irving, as well as Richard Williamson, a former bishop of an obscure Catholic sect who was excommunicated by the Pope.
Williamson was convicted of incitement in a German court in 2010 for denying the existence of Nazi gas chambers and claiming just 300,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis, instead of the six million who were actually murdered. His conviction was later vacated on appeal.
But debate around the need for such laws has inevitably been reignited in the wake of a European-wide debate over free speech and the right to offend, following the massacre of the cartoonists and many others at the secular and satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamic extremist gunmen. It follows, many have argued in recent months, that if France and Europe wishes to uphold the sacred values of free speech in the face of a threat, then it should also examine Holocaust denial laws.
Orthodox Rabbi Mendel Gurewitz, an American-born rabbi who grew up in France and now lives in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, said it was important at this crucial period in history, that things were not made easier for deniers, and said that the current laws kept “extremists” from distorting the facts about the Holocaust.
“I think it should stay illegal.” He told The Huffington Post UK: “I think yes, somehow, somewhere, we have to have this law.” The German emphasis on studying the Holocaust was why “they start to understand, they start to open their eyes.”
Deborah Lipstadt at London’s High Court to attend her libel case brought by David Irving for claiming he is ‘one of the most dangerous spokespersons of Holocaust denial’
But Rabbi Gurewitz said he was already observing some resistance among schoolchildren for learning about the Holocaust in history lessons. “In France, in some schools, the kids are protesting they don’t want to hear about the Holocaust. If they would just know our history, I think there would be much less hatred. If they would know what a Jew went through.”
For many, events in Paris are evidence that more, not less, legislation is needed against hate speech, Holocaust denial and extremist views. The European Jewish Congress have argued for a stepping up of the laws around Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism because of the second tragedy that occurred in Paris that same week, a gunman connected to the Islamists that killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices, took dozens of people hostage at a kosher supermarket and killed four French Jews.
The proposal by Jewish leaders is in fact three years in the making, backed by the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation. It proposes to outlaw anti-Semitism across all 28 EU member states, as well as many other acts which violate rights on religious or cultural ground, such as female genital mutilation, polygamy, the burqa, as well as denial of the Holocaust or any other historically-defined genocide. It would make “group libel” a crime, the defamation of women, or of a certain religion, as a whole.
Dr Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, said he saw disturbing trends that the new proposal hoped to address. “We are seeing the term “Nazi” and “Holocaust” banded around far too easily, not least by those ignorantly or cynically comparing Zionism to Nazism, which, apart from being a shameful slander and ludicrously ignorant, is also modern form of Holocaust denial,” he wrote in a HuffPost UK blogpost.
“Commemorations and symbolic gestures are important and certainly have their place. Powerful speeches about our terrible history are not what we need. However, more needs to be done to focus on concrete measures to prevent Europe slipping again into intolerance, inequality and political disenchantment. Now is the time to take action.”
Lipstadt has previously argued that modern times have seen the rise of so-called “soft-core” denial, pointing to the example in 2007 of the Muslim Council of Britain’s refusal to take part in Holocaust Memorial Day. But she told HuffPost that even without stringent laws or living witnesses, Holocaust denial could never take root, because of the extensive amount of documentation of the genocide by the Nazis, which speaks for itself.
“I think the Holocaust has the dubious distinction of being the best documented genocide in the world, the Nazis were good at that,” she said. “When I was on trial, defending myself against David Irving, we didn’t rely on survivors. We wanted to show the documents were there to prove what happened, that you didn’t need the voice of the witness to prove it. And clearly, we were successful, because we won an important victory. In terms of proof, the documentation is all there.