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.
One such survivor is Tomi Reichental, who was imprisoned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp when he was nine. He lost 35 members of his extended family in the Holocaust. “I didn’t speak for more than 55 years about my experiences, not even to my wife and children. Not because I didn’t want to speak about it; I couldn’t. But about seven years ago I decided to speak out,” he says.
“I consider myself one of the last surviving witnesses of the Holocaust and a living testament to the event. I am very concerned that after we are all gone the Holocaust deniers will have a plain field.”
Reichental has been living in Dublin since 1959 and travels to a secondary school nearly every week. “I stress to the students that Ireland is now a multinational society and in times of recession it is very easy to blame others. Racism can very easily get a hold. We must remember the Holocaust did not begin with gas chambers; it began with whispers, taunts, daubing, abuse and, finally, murder.
“Of course I don’t suggest that it can happen in Ireland, but racism is a real danger.”
He is the subject of a documentary by Gerry Gregg, Till the Tenth Generation, which is supplied to every secondary school in the State as part of a package promoting Holocaust awareness. In addition the Holocaust Education Trust has arranged a three-day summer school for teachers at Trinity College Dublin on August 20th-22nd. Prof Deborah Lipstadt, who won a celebrated libel case that David Irving took against her, will give three lectures, including one entitled Holocaust Denial and How to Address It, and she will also give a public lunchtime lecture on August 22nd.
The trust was established in September 2005; its teacher-education programmes also include Learning from the Holocaust, which includes a study visit to Cracow and Auschwitz. The Irish seminar at Yad Vashem, an eight-day programme for teachers, is taking place this week. There are 12 participants.
Speaking from Jerusalem, Peter Garry, a teacher at Coláiste Choilm in Ballincollig, Co Cork, said the course was “absolutely excellent”. He also took part in the study visit to Cracow and Auschwitz-Birkenau last October and describes his visit to the former concentration camp as “a deeply moving experience”. Reichental addressed a group of 600 students at Coláiste Choilm in January.
The latest edition of the quarterly magazine published at Yad Vashem includes a photograph of Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore, who visited the museum in January. It also points out that last December Ireland became a full member of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. The task force has 31 member countries, all committed to the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust (2000).
Part of the declaration states: “Together we must uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it. We must strengthen the moral commitment of our peoples, and the political commitment of our governments, to ensure that future generations can understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect upon its consequences.”