After Auschwitz, memory is barbaric: 8 things to know for May 2
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After Auschwitz, memory is barbaric: 8 things to know for May 2

Rather than unity, Holocaust Remembrance Day presents a politicized struggle over what lessons to take from the horrors of the past to combat a bleak future

President Reuven Rivlin lays a wreath in honor of Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 2, 2019 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin lays a wreath in honor of Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 2, 2019 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

1. Remembering what they did: Israelis stood Thursday morning to mark two minutes of silence in remembrance of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, one of the most moving and solemn moments on a day full of them.

  • The day is one in which TV channels and radio stations broadcast almost exclusively content related to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The only songs heard are sad ones, and stories of death, destruction and rebuilding from survivors and others fill every corner.
  • The memorials began with a military-tinged ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Wednesday night, with survivors lighting candles and political leaders raising alarms about anti-Semitism still rampant in Europe and elsewhere.
  • President Reuven Rivlin used his address to warn against breaking bread with those on the European far-right who refuse to acknowledge their role in the Holocaust, saying no realpolitik considerations could justify doing so
  • The comments are seen as an implicit rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • “Rivlin leveled hinted criticism at the burgeoning ties between the Netanyahu government and those on the far-right in Europe,” Yedioth Ahronoth reports.

2. Recognizing what they want to do: Netanyahu also pointed a finger at rising anti-Semitism, but his speech focused more on hate coming from the other side of the political spectrum, mentioning the New York Times cartoon and warning Iran that Jews won’t allow themselves to be slaughtered again.

  • “Netanyahu spoke not merely with his trademark assurance, but with ferocity,” ToI’s David Horovitz writes, crediting his electoral win for the prime minister’s swagger. “Netanyahu … believes he had to win because he is certain that he, and only he, can keep this country safe and thriving in the face of its enemies.”
  • In Israel Hayom, seen as close to Netanyahu, columnists echo the takeaway that Israel needs a strong army.
  • “There is no real reason to assume [the world] would take any significant action if, heaven forbid, the existence of the Jewish people in Israel or around the world was under threat,” Nadav Shragai writes, ticking off the genocides that have occurred since the Holocaust.
  • “This is a time of emergency, and anyone who does not understand the need for a strong Israel is playing into the hands of anti-Semites, if not anti-Semitic themselves,” Eldad Beck writes in another.

3. Anti-Semitism vs. anti-Semitism: Netanyahu’s and Rivlin’s speeches accentuated the unofficial theme of this year’s commemorations, which appears to be anti-Semitism on the right vs. anti-Semitism on the left. (The official theme of commemorations at Yad Vashem this year is the struggle of Jews to meet the needs of survival during the war years.)

  • On Twitter, right-wing Channel 20 commentator Shimon Riklin writes that nobody will talk about why the Holocaust happened in Germany, “where Jews were the most progressive.”
  • The comment is criticized as the latest one by a right-wing Israeli to blame Jews for helping the spread of anti-Semitism. (Israel Hayom’s Beck also points a finger at Jews trying to “weaken” the Jewish state.)
  • In Haaretz, former Meretz head Zehava Gal-on writes that there’s enough anti-Semitism to go around for everybody, but it’s not leftists who are forming ties with European far-right parties that are outgrowths of the Nazi movement.
  • “Blaming Jews for the anti-Semitism against them is nothing new, but in the past was the bailiwick of anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers. Today, it exists within the ruling party and among intellectuals … of the new Israeli right,” she writes, connecting the argument to comments praising Hitler and sundry by rabbis at a preeminent religious Zionist yeshiva in the settlement of Eli.

4. Fight over memory: Despite Netanyahu’s efforts to forge ties with Poland, Jerusalem and Warsaw remain at loggerheads over comments made by Israeli officials that Poles took offense to earlier this year.

  • That means that this year, for the first time in years, neither Poland nor Israel are sending high level delegations to March of the Living commemorations at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
  • Tens of thousands of others make the trip though, including US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and survivor Ed Mosberg, who has become a well-known advocate for Holocaust commemoration and education.
  • At the March, Mosberg angrily denounces Israeli Minister Israel Katz for saying earlier this year that Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.”
  • “Unfortunately there is no medicine for stupidity,” he says, according to ToI’s Michael Bachner, reporting on the trip. “I’m talking about Israel Katz, that stupid idiot, if he could say that it shows his stupidity.
  • “I told Polish President Andrzej Duda not to come down to Israel unless he apologizes or is fired from the government,” he adds.
  • Other survivors at the March express fears that history is repeating itself.
  • “In Europe, in Canada, in the United States, anti-Semitism is back,” says Max Eisen. “It has taken on a life of its own, it’s a terrible thing.”

5. Their lies, Treblinka: Reporter Ronen Bergman, who won plaudits last year for confronting Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki over the country’s Holocaust law, writes in Yedioth that the Holocaust denial industry is still thriving in that country.

  • Bergman, who last year mentioned his mother’s experiences during the Holocaust at the hands of Poles, only to be told by Morawiecki that Poles did not commit any atrocities against the Jews, writes that Warsaw is an example of a trend in Eastern Europe not to deny the Holocaust, but to deny collaboration with the Nazis.
  • “In an attempt to create a history they can be proud of, Eastern European politicians are fanning the most primitive urges and writing a new one,” he writes. “Many in Poland believe that the Jews were linked to the Nazis at first, that many of the Nazi leaders, including Hitler, were Jews, and they helped destroy the Poles.”

6. They don’t know: It’s not only the Poles who might not know what happened.

  • A study released Thursday by the Claims Conference finds that 56 percent of Austrians did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and 36% believed that 2 million Jews or fewer were killed.
  • “The results were deeply disturbing because it reflects really a distortion of historical events as time goes on,” Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, tells USA Today, which calls the figures shocking.
  • In ToI, Robert Philpot writes about a scholar’s look at various conspiracy theories surrounding Hitler’s death, some of which are still believed today.
  • The scholar, Luke Daly-Groves, notes that rumors that Hitler had survived were given extra prominence because people pointed to investigations by US and British intelligence into the matter as proof that there was something to them.
  • But Daly-Groves says, “The reason they were investigating these stories in the 1940s and 1950s was not because they believed Hitler could have escaped — it was often more because they were concerned with who was spreading these rumors and why they were doing so.”

7. When artifacts are all we have left: Much of the burden of combating Holocaust denial has been borne by survivors who can testify as to what they went through, but with the number of survivors dwindling, that job will increasingly fall to objects.

  • The Associated Press reports that Yad Vashem is increasingly focusing on artifacts from the Holocaust, dedicating a new center to archive materials collected from survivors and others.
  • “Through its ‘Gathering the Fragments’ program, Yad Vashem has collected some 250,000 items from survivors and their families in recent years to be stored for posterity and displayed online in hopes of preserving the memory of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis, even after the last of the survivors has passed away,” the agency’s Aron Heller writes.
  • “By preserving these precious items … and revealing them to the public they will act as the voice of the victims and the survivors and serve as an everlasting memory,” Yad Vashem head Avner Shalev says.
  • Many of the items are letters, some written from the concentration and death camps. Haaretz writes about 12 letters put on display by the Holocaust memorial and museum, all of them from 1944, “ the year that the end of Nazi Germany could be seen on the horizon, but the destruction continued at full force.”
  • “Now, my dear, we take our leave of you. I do not know whether we will meet again in this life. Pray to the merciful God to have mercy on us, because this situation cannot be tolerated for long,” reads one letter sent by Bracha Igaz from the Bekescsaba Ghetto in Hungary to her husband Yaakov in Debrecen.
  • The paper notes that the letter was sent on the day the ghetto was wiped out, and the words were Igaz’s last.

8. If this is a memorial: Some in Israel are criticizing the way the country chooses to commemorate the Holocaust.

  • JTA’s Hen Mazzig asks why Middle Eastern Jews are ignored in remembrances, given pogroms by Nazi-backed mobs in Iraq and actual Nazis killing Jews in northern Europe.
  • “I hope that one day Mizrahi children in Israel and around the world will learn about our trauma and what happened to our community during the Holocaust. That they will find a place to deal with our tragic memory of our community and our history,” he writes. “Learning these stories will not diminish the memory of the Holocaust. It is only when Mizrahim are invited to fully be a part of the communal mourning, and only when we are heard, that all Jews will be able to truly mourn together.”
  • In Haaretz, Yossi Klein writes that the state’s attempts to nationalize mourning have been hollow and not served the memory of the victims or those who should be educated about what happened.
  • “Holocaust Remembrance Day doesn’t belong in our current reality. The dead are forgotten, the survivors abandoned. The lessons have not been learned. Racism is flourishing and hatred is winning. As if the Holocaust never happened,” he writes.
  • In an open letter to his grandparents, however, former minister Shai Piron defends the way Israel commemorates the day.
  • “We are not ignoring the horror but we emphasize hope. We did not forget the past but we are committed to the future,” he writes in Yedioth. “We did not tire of the story; the opposite, we dressed it in new clothes and turned it into a lifeline.”
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