Time to stop making lazy Holocaust parallels

We must learn the lessons of history without making inappropriate comparisons, argues Karen Pollock


YORK, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23: Leanne Woodhurst from York Minster begins to light some of the 600 candles set out on the floor of the Chapter House of York Minster in a Star of David as part of a commemoration for Holocaust Memorial Day at York Minster on January 23, 2020 in York, England. The ceremony in the Minster is part of events in the UK and internationally marking Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27. This year marks the 75th anniversary since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945 which was the largest Nazi death camp. The Holocaust genocide took place during World War II in Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany where aided by its collaborators they systematically murdered some six million European Jews. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

January 21, 2021 13:16

In the past two decades or so, an amazing phenomenon happened: The Holocaust has become a symbol of evil.”

So wrote Professor Yehuda Bauer in 2002. Almost 20 years on, his sentiment still stands.

Next week, as the world marks Holocaust Memorial Day, we will remember the six million Jewish men, women and children, and the millions of others, murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Yet even as we mark this solemn moment and honour the unique and unimaginable suffering of victims and survivors, all too often we see parallels drawn to the Holocaust in inappropriate contexts.

We are all too familiar with the deliberate antisemitic comparisons to Israel. But the parallels we have seen extend well beyond this abhorrent example and include those drawn between the Holocaust and environmental damage, cruelty to animals and, most recently, public health restrictions imposed by the government during the pandemic.

One can understand why people do this: they see the Holocaust as a defining example of something horrifying – a symbol of evil, as Professor Bauer put it.

But the intent does not make the comparison any less dangerous.

Attempts to draw these parallels do a disservice to both the Holocaust and current events. But, more than that, they are also deeply offensive to those who survived the Holocaust and the families of those who did not.

We use a unique word, the Holocaust – in Hebrew, the Shoah – for a reason: to try to describe a unique experience, to seek as best we can to put the unspeakable into words. In protecting the Holocaust from misappropriation, so we protect and honour the experience.

At the Holocaust Educational Trust, we teach young people across the country about this devastating history, as well as what we can learn for today.

We teach them that the Holocaust didn’t start with the gas chambers, and that it was fuelled by centuries of antisemitism, propaganda, misinformation, complicity and fear.

And we teach them that it happened because people stood by. We want them to learn from the past and to take action against hatred in the modern world.

In doing so, we know that while we can learn from the past, we cannot transpose events that happened a lifetime ago onto our world today.

While we want every young person to know about the Holocaust, it is important that they do not see every other event simply through that prism.

In teaching young people about the complexity of the Holocaust and the unique experience of the victims and survivors, we want them to see why making comparisons to the modern world is so troubling.

The question I would pose to anyone making a comparison to the Holocaust in conversation, in a campaign or on social media, is this: would you make that comparison in front of a survivor or the family of a victim?

In every act of evil, victims have their own identity, their own history and their own stories. Those stories deserve to be told in their own right, on their own terms and in their own words, not through the prism of others’ experience or using others’ terms.

As for important social and political issues of the day, they can be described and debated perfectly well without lazily reaching to the Holocaust for comparisons that do more harm than good.

We must learn the lessons of history without making inappropriate comparisons.

We must know what happens when antisemitism and hatred are allowed to go unchecked.

While we cannot use history to draw a direct roadmap of the future, we must watch out for the warning signs, the chilling echoes of the past which serve as alarm bells for our collective conscience.

When we do, we must never stand by, because what we have learnt about the Holocaust compels us to stand up.

We owe it to victims and the survivors to do so while ensuring that the memory of the Holocaust is forever preserved and is never, ever devalued.


Karen Pollock is Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust

January 21, 2021 13:16

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