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As Iran’s president doubts the Holocaust, its survivors gather at Yad Vashem

Dozens of survivors who regularly tell their stories at the museum meet in Jerusalem for a festive event ahead of Rosh Hashanah

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Holocaust survivors chat at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center during an event in which they were thanked for speaking to groups about their experiences, on September 19, 2022. (Yad Vashem)
Illustrative: Holocaust survivors chat at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center during an event in which they were thanked for speaking to groups about their experiences, on September 19, 2022. (Yad Vashem)

On the morning after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi questioned the historicity of the Holocaust, dozens of survivors of the Nazi genocide gathered in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center.

The poignant timing was a coincidence. The survivors had come on Monday morning for an annual event, scheduled far in advance, in which Yad Vashem thanked them for speaking to groups that visit the museum.

Addressing the more than 50 survivors, as well as their family members and museum staff, Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan fiercely denounced the Iranian president’s remarks, calling them “drivel” and “antisemitic.”

Dayan said he’d started the day looking forward to the event, calling his relationships with Holocaust survivors the best part of his job.

“But that festive and excited mood was spoiled when I turned on the news and saw the drivel that was said by Iranian President Raisi,” he said.

On Sunday night, the American news program “60 Minutes” broadcast an interview with Raisi, in which he was asked if he believed that the Holocaust truly happened.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during an interview with CBS at the presidential compound in Tehran on September 13, 2022. (Screenshot: Twitter, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Raisi, whose country has hosted Holocaust denial conferences and cartoon competitions, said there were “some signs that it happened” but that it should be “investigated and researched.”

Rena Quint, one of the survivors at the event, told The Times of Israel that she had been shocked by Raisi’s demand for proof, given the staggering amount of readily available evidence.

“I heard today that Raisi in Iran was saying that [the Holocaust] didn’t happen or that he has to prove that it happened. Well, the Germans can prove it happened. We have all their pictures,” she said on the sidelines of the event.

Quint, who was one of two survivors who met US President Joe Biden when he visited Yad Vashem earlier this year, said comments like Raisi’s were the reason why at the age of 86 she continues to speak to groups from around the world about her experiences in the Holocaust.

“There is nothing more antisemitic than what [Raisi] said,” Dayan said. “That is a remark that indicates hatred and contempt not only toward Jews today but also toward the memory of the 6 million Jews — the 1.5 million Jewish children — who were killed in the Holocaust.”

Addressing the survivors, Dayan added: “He represents the lie. You represent the truth, you spread the truth.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel after the event, Dayan said that the type of “blatant, bare-knuckled Holocaust denial” that Raisi displayed with his remarks is almost exclusively heard in Iran, “probably a few other Muslim countries,” and the nastier recesses of social media.

US President Joe Biden speaks with Holocaust survivors Giselle Cycowicz (bottom-R) and Rena Quint (bottom-L), at the Hall of Remembrance of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem, on July 13, 2022. (Menahem KAHANA / various sources / AFP)

“In that respect, we have advanced because in the previous century, in the 1980s and 1990s, we still had the phenomenon, like with the famous Holocaust denier David Irving who conducted a trial against Deborah Lipstadt,” Dayan said. He was referring to a British libel suit in which Irving effectively required the famed researcher to prove that the Holocaust happened, which she did.

Instead, according to Dayan, it is far more common for countries to practice “Holocaust distortion,” in which they don’t deny that the Holocaust occurred, but whitewash or minimize their citizens’ roles in it and inflate their efforts to save Jews.

“Usually it goes like this: ‘Of course the Holocaust happened, and of course the six million Jews were massacred, and there were gas chambers and shooting pits.’ But each country says, ‘But in my country all of the citizens tried to help.’ The truth, of course, is that this is a fallacy. In almost every single European country under German occupation, there were much more collaborators, to say nothing of bystanders, than there were righteous among the nations — those that saved Jews,” Dayan said in English.

He referred to a recent government-backed Polish report that ignored Polish authorities’ roles in the Holocaust and blamed Germany for pogroms committed by Poles against their Jewish neighbors; to comments made by both Russian and Ukrainian officials at the start of Moscow’s invasion in February; and to claims by French Jewish far-right politician Éric Zemmour that the country’s Vichy government during World War II tried to save Jews, when the opposite was the case.

According to Dayan, because these efforts come from governments and political parties, they are better funded and organized and are thus more insidious and difficult to fight.

“The problem of distortion is more serious than the problem of outright denial that is limited to fundamentalist and antisemites, like Mr. Raisi,” he said.

Holocaust survivors pose for a photograph with the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, Dani Dayan, center, during an event in which they were thanked for speaking to groups about their experiences, on September 19, 2022. (Yad Vashem)

The dozens of survivors who came to Yad Vashem on Monday all speak regularly to the thousands of groups who visit the museum each year, from Israel Defense Forces soldiers to American evangelical Christian tourists and visiting dignitaries from around the world.

In addition to the thanks, they were also given a small token of the museum’s appreciation for their willingness to share their experiences — a calendar and a small pot of honey for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday.

Dayan, who recently marked the end of his first year as chairman of Yad Vashem, acknowledged that fewer survivors came this year than last year and that unfortunately fewer still will likely come next year.

At some point in the coming years, the last of the Holocaust survivors will succumb to old age and only physical evidence — no eyewitnesses — will remain.

“We are approaching a watershed moment when we arrive to a post-survivor era. That will be the happy hour of the deniers and the distortionists. And that’s the reason we invest so much in documentation and research, because when we argue with the deniers and the distortionists in the post-survivor era, we will have to be on very solid ground with a very solid factual base,” he said.

“It will be in some sense a different game, a more challenging one, a more difficult one, but also a more vital one, a more essential one.”

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