When the Shoah is stripped of its meaning, what then?

By Abraham H Foxman, January 27, 2012
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This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, the meeting convened in a Berlin suburb by the Nazi SS henchman Reinhard Heydrich to coordinate the liquidation and eventual extermination of Europe's Jews.

It was at this meeting that the wheels were set in motion for the Holocaust. When the world finally learned that six million Jews and millions of others were systematically murdered at Auschwitz and at the nearly two dozen other camps spread across the continent, it was universally agreed that the kind of mass genocide that befell European Jewry could never be repeated, and that the lessons of the Holocaust should never be forgotten.

How bizarre it is to be in the 21st century, at a time when the memory of the Holocaust and the war is fading, and its chilling lexicon of "Nazis," "Gestapo," and "Hitler" is being expropriated by those who would exploit and cheapen the message of "never again" in the most callous ways, for their own personal or political gain.

Holocaust trivialisation is hardly a new issue. We've been speaking out about inappropriate analogies to Nazis, Hitler and the Holocaust for nearly 20 years as they have cropped up in political speech, advertising and popular culture.

They know full well what they are doing

But there is no doubt the problem is getting worse. Exhibit A is the Dubai gym that recently used a photo of Auschwitz in a promotion for membership. The 10 photos posted to the gym's Facebook page included the chilling image of the railroad leading to the gates of Birkenau with the slogan, "Kiss your calories goodbye". The message was as unambiguous as it was outrageous: If you want to lose pounds like the inmates of Auschwitz, join our gym.

A controversy ensued; the management relented, apologised and removed the image. While their apology was appropriate and necessary, the controversy raised larger questions. Who could have conceived of such an insensitive and offensive message? Who approved it? Why did it not raise any red flags beforehand?

It is clear that Holocaust trivialisation is becoming more commonplace throughout society and around the world. Yet no matter how many times we speak out, it seems to grow. People are not being sensitised.

There are many reasons for the proliferation of inappropriate Nazi comparisons. For one, as we move farther away from the events of the Second World War, memory fades, and the number of survivors and veterans who can bear witness are dwindling. For some, the problem is a lack of sensitivity. For others, they know full well what they are doing. They are being deliberately provocative, taking advantage of the diminished sensitivity. In the process of using these gross comparisons, they further the process of desensitising. When pro-Palestinian protestors compare Gaza to Auschwitz, or carry placards stating that the star of David equals a swastika, the message even crosses the line into antisemitism.

We saw this three years ago, at scores of demonstrations around the world against Operation Cast Lead, including when groups such as the British Muslim Initiative produced placards that read "STOP the Holocaust in Gaza". The Iranian regime, which has sponsored a Holocaust cartoon "contest" and whose president has made statements questioning whether the number of Jews killed has been exaggerated, hypocritically engages in similar comparisons while also denying the Holocaust. First Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists that the Holocaust didn't happen, and then he criticises Israel for acting like Nazis.

As a survivor who was saved by my Polish-Catholic nanny, I am increasingly troubled by both the ignorance and mindset of a generation that appears to be so distant from a basic understanding of the Holocaust.

I wonder: What do we have to do to educate current and future generations of the perils of bigotry, racism, discrimination and antisemitism? And if we do not convey the importance of eliminating these ills from society, are we doomed to relive the horrors of another mass genocide?

It is time for those who abuse the memory of the Holocaust to understand that words do have consequences, and that inappropriate comparisons only serve to lessen the true impact and meaning of the lessons of the Shoah. Those lessons are profound and timeless.

Abraham H Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of "Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype" (Palgrave Macmillan)

    Last updated: 1:16pm, January 27 2012