Teaching of Holocaust must focus on ugly truth

February 26, 2006|By MARTIN KIMEL

WASHINGTON -- As the son of Holocaust survivors, I'm glad that Oprah Winfrey has chosen Elie Wiesel's Night for her book club and is planning to make her recent visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau with Mr. Wiesel an educational experience for millions of her viewers.

At a time when the president of Iran denies the existence of the Holocaust, the world needs all of the good education it can get about one of the darkest events in history.

The Holocaust is a daunting subject to teach, in part because its ugliness is unpleasant to contemplate and in part because what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau and elsewhere defies comprehension.

As Ms. Winfrey ventures into this area of supreme sensitivities, my concern is that she will emphasize the kinds of morally uplifting stories she is known for.

There are positive stories to be found concerning the Holocaust and its aftermath - of righteous Christians who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors during the war, of resilient survivors such as my parents, who left Poland years after the war and made successful lives for themselves in America. These stories deserve telling.

But I hope Ms. Winfrey doesn't focus too much on them because they're only a small part of what happened.

Last fall, I made a pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There isn't much uplifting about the massive Birkenau death camp, where roughly 1.5 million men, women and children perished, about 90 percent of them Jews. The Nazis couldn't have done what they did, there and elsewhere, without the active participation or acquiescence of far too many ordinary people.

In addition, life-affirming stories from the Holocaust are not, in my view, how that terrible time is most relevant to today. The failure of the United States and other countries to come to the aid of European Jewry earlier in the war has its parallel in the world's general apathy to the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

The Holocaust's lessons about man's potential for unmitigated cruelty, his ability to dehumanize the "other," to be indifferent to the suffering of his neighbors - these also find reflections in the later genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda and in the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia.

The Holocaust's general lessons about the dangers of any kind of racism or bigotry speak directly to us. These lessons must be studied, taught and remembered.

But the Holocaust was largely, though not exclusively, about one very specific kind of racism - anti-Semitism - which, unfortunately, still poses a grave threat more than 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I hope this is a topic Ms. Winfrey won't neglect.

Today, a virulent hatred of Jews pervades much of the Muslim world. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatens to wipe Israel off the face of the map while a major Iranian newspaper solicits cartoons mocking the Holocaust.

Hamas, which is openly anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish, was voted overwhelmingly into power by the Palestinians. Al-Qaida rails against the Jews at every opportunity. We should remember that the Islamist murderers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl made him say, "My father's Jewish, My mother's Jewish, I'm Jewish," just before beheading him.

Unfortunately, this Jew hatred isn't limited to radical Islam. Respected Arab imams preach that Jews are the descendents of "pigs and monkeys." Our ally Saudi Arabia generally bars Jews from entering the kingdom. Ordinary Iraqis have blamed horrific truck bombs on the Jews.

Malaysia, whose former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, blamed practically everything on the Jews, banned the film version of Schindler's List for a time because it portrayed Jews sympathetically.

In the United States, New Jersey's poet laureate in 2002, Amiri Baraka, suggested that the Jews knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance. The list goes on.

Classic European anti-Semitism was largely rooted in the Catholic Church's now-repudiated teachings that the Jews killed Christ. Islamic anti-Semitism is different, but it often draws on the same "inspirations" for its anti-Jewish stereotypes.

For example, Hamas' 1988 charter and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf both cite the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion as proof that Jews are bent on world domination. (In 2001, a popular multipart docudrama based on the Protocols was broadcast throughout the Arab world during prime time.)

The Arab media - which are mostly government-controlled - also traffic in the blood libel that Jews ritually kill non-Jews. And the Arab press routinely publishes vicious, anti-Jewish cartoons that could have sprung directly from the pages of the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer. Few Muslims are taking to the streets to protest those cartoons.

As for the controversial Muhammad caricatures, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called their publication by a Danish newspaper a Zionist plot (what isn't?).

These are not uplifting facts. But if Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Holocaust teach us anything, they teach us that people of good will must face unpleasant truths and stand against anti-Semitism and other forms of virulent racism and bigotry, wherever they appear.

Martin Kimel is an attorney in Washington. His e-mail is martinkimel2005@yahoo.com.

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