A monument to millions, in the face of Holocaust denial
The Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem is fascinating and moving, but it exists against the rising phenomenon of Holocaust denial around the world
THERE ARE many powerful exhibits at the Yad Vashem museum of the Holocaust, in Jerusalem, but perhaps the most affecting is a wall display that weaves the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, through the names of concentration camps.
And praised. Auschwitz. Be. Majdanek. The Lord. Treblinka. And praised. Buchenwald. Be. Mauthausen. The Lord. Belzec. And praised. Sobibor. Be. Chelmno. The Lord. Ponary. And praised. Theresienstadt. Be. Warsaw. The Lord. Vilna. And praised. Skarzysko. Be. Bergen-Belsen. The Lord. Amen.
The quotation is an excerpt from the book The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart (1928-2006), which traces the story of a Jewish family from the time of the Crusades to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The French novelist’s parents were Polish Jews killed by the Nazis.
This reporter has visited Yad Vashem on a number of occasions, including this month. It is a fascinating and moving experience. The group I was with heard that only Shanghai and the Dominican Republic were prepared to take in substantial numbers of Jewish refugees during the second World War. Our hosts were too polite to mention that Ireland was among the many that failed to open their doors: it’s a shameful chapter in our history.
It is difficult to take in all the exhibits in one tour of the museum. On a previous visit I saw the memorial devoted to children, who comprised about a quarter of the six million Jewish people who died. It was funded by a Jewish couple who found prosperity in the US but whose small son, Uziel, had earlier perished in Auschwitz. Its architect, Moshe Safdie, assembled a set of linked glass cases with the pictures suspended inside and an array of candles in memory of the dead.
As you walk around the exhibit the candles multiply almost to infinity in the glass. A voice recites the names of victims aged five, seven and 10 from a long list of countries, including Poland, France and Lithuania.
The Nazi Holocaust is one of the most appalling crimes in history: six million Jews and more than five million other victims perished. In light of all that has been said, written, photographed and broadcast, you might expect there would be no one to contradict its significance and scale. Yet the phenomenon of Holocaust denial is on the increase.
The best-known political figure associated with this school of thought is Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; the highest-profile adherent in the academic sphere is the historian David Irving, who notoriously said “more women died on the back seat of
Senator Edward Kennedy’s motor car in Chappaquiddick than in the gas chamber of Auschwitz”.
One of the byproducts of the economic and fiscal crisis has been the rise of the far-right Golden Dawn party in Greece, whose members have been known to indulge in Nazi-style salutes and deny the Holocaust, although the organisation officially rejects the neo-Nazi label. Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the chairman of the Golden Dawn, has challenged the view that six million Jews were killed. “There were no ovens. This is a lie . . . there were no gas chambers either,” he told a TV interviewer in May.
There are few obvious signs of Holocaust denial in Ireland, although the chief executive of the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, Lynn Jackson, says it does exist: “We do get nasty mail from time to time.” There have also been “one or two” protests outside schools when one of a small number of Holocaust survivors living in Ireland come to give talks about their experiences.