Shaping the memory of evil

Posted: Jan 26, 2006 12:05 AM

The United Nations, which has not always been friendly to the Jews, will mark the first universal observance of victims of the Holocaust this week, with an International Day of Commemoration with the theme "Remembrance and Beyond." The date is Jan. 27, the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp 61 years ago.
The commemoration was long in coming, but it's never too late to confront the haters. David Irving, the notorious British war historian and Holocaust denier who once claimed the gas chambers at Auschwitz were a myth, now sits in a prison in Austria for denying facts about the Holocaust. Holocaust denial is against the law in Austria. He enjoys his infamy and notoriety, but even Deborah Lipstadt, who exposed Irving's fake "scholarship" and was sued for her trouble, says he should be left alone in the name of free speech. He gets more fame in prison than out and has become a martyr for neo-Nazis.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, is a different breed of pig. He not only says that the slaughter of 6 million Jews is a "myth," but demands that the state of Israel be "wiped off the map" (6 million dead Jews were not enough). Failing that, European countries should take back their Jews. He plans a conference on the Holocaust to stoke anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism.

Not so long ago, the French Ambassador Daniel Bernard to Britain told a chic dinner table in London that Israel was a "s--tty little country," and asked, "Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of these people?" (What subsequently upset the English, according to the hostess who gave the party, was not the substance of the remark but her bad table manners in saying anything about it.)

The Muslim Council in London has boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day every year since it was designated in 2001 and asks all Muslims to do so. All the more remarkable, then, that even one Muslim in London, writing in the New Statesman, would dare to scold the Muslim Council for failing to see how the Holocaust is unique in the long history of human suffering. "Muslims have no right to demean the horror experienced by Jews, and as human beings they cannot stand aside and refuse to participate in remembering this calamity," he writes. "It is shameful for the council and its supporters to demonize those Muslims who participate in the memorial day."

Any student of the history of Holocaust memory must welcome the United Nations commemoration because history can shortchange facts. Henry Ford famously said, "History is bunk." Bunk or not, history like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and the beholder is easily manipulated by the interpreters. The medium shapes the message, and politics propels the interpretation.

The United States has gone through many different phases in its own commemoration of the horrors bequeathed by the Third Reich. In the decade after World War II, survivors arriving here from Europe wanted to forget their brutal experiences and focus instead on their new lives. Many of them kept their silence. Silence morphed into sensationalism as the Holocaust was trivialized into soap opera, a miniseries for television.

At war's end, Margaret Bourke-White's famous photograph of emaciated inmates at Buchenwald, staring out from behind barbed wire, seared the conscience of the civilized world. In 2002, the Jewish Museum shocked the public by exhibiting the same photograph, digitally altered by an artist who inserts himself in it, holding up a can of Diet Coke. (At Buchenwald, everybody was on a diet. Get it?)

The Holocaust even becomes comedy. Audiences of stage and screen laugh uproariously at "The Producers," satirizing the Third Reich with a chorus line of young women in scanty costumes and black leather boots, singing "Springtime for Hitler" as they form a swastika. Oprah's next book club selection is "Night," Elie Wiesel's memoir of his experience in a death camp. He could only watch in agony as his family was murdered, a mute witness to the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.

In a preface to "Night," Francois Mauriac, the French writer, says, "It is not always the events we have been directly involved in that affect us the most." He's right about that. But we have a responsibility to continue to confront the truth, ever more difficult as the last survivors die. An international day of commemoration helps keep those facts alive in the public memory.