The Abuse of Holocaust Memory Chapter Eleven: What Can and Should Be Done?

As time passes Holocaust history lends itself more to manipulations, despite the increase in historical information. This process will not stop, and this consideration has to be the starting point for the development of policies on how to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.

Testimonies of witnesses have been a crucial element in building and maintaining a correct collective memory of the Shoah. Of those who consciously experienced World War II, few still occupy positions of importance in society. The number of surviving witnesses of the horrors of the Holocaust is rapidly declining. This is happening in a societal environment where the overall uncertainty about the future is growing and moral relativism is rife. Anti-Semitism frequently increases in such a situation.

Thus the struggle for maintaining the memory of the Holocaust, as well as the fight against its distortion, is likely to become more difficult, as the last survivors and other eyewitnesses pass away. One will increasingly have to explain the reasons for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and why this is important not only for the Jews but also for society at large.

Those engaged in preserving the memory of the Holocaust, then, need to be active in the public debate about it and related issues. These include, for instance, museum curators, specialized academics, artists, educators, and survivors. The major fields of public discourse that are relevant in terms of preserving the memory of the Holocaust will be touched upon below. Various ways in which the participants in this discourse can safeguard the memory of the Holocaust and ensure that it is not manipulated, misrepresented, or abused will also be discussed.

Maintaining Memory

One major reason for maintaining the memory of the Holocaust is a moral obligation toward those who perished. Forgetting them also means the fading away of the crimes committed, thus facilitating their return in various forms in contemporary society. There is a second moral obligation — the one toward those who survived and suffered the consequences of their Holocaust experience for the rest of their lives.

Similarly, there is a commitment toward the Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as to the soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany and its allies.

Fackenheim’s 614th Commandment

According to the tradition, the Torah contains 613 commandments Jews have to obey. Fackenheim defined remembering the Holocaust as the 614th commandment, formulating it as: “Thou Shalt Not Give Hitler a Posthumous Victory.” He explained:

We are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, second, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler’s victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories.1

Tossavainen observes: “commemoration, which — together with other ritual practices — is a central part of civil religion, fulfils many important needs in a societal context. Commemoration forges a sense of unity and continuity and at the same time is a great educational opportunity, helping to develop and sustain values that can be passed on from generation to generation.”2

The Gentile World

A further reason for fostering commemoration of the Holocaust is that in those countries where Jews were persecuted and perished their story should be part of the collective memory and national history. There are many who would like to erase the crimes of their forefathers. Most likely, the less these crimes are confronted the easier it will be for similar criminality to develop in the future. In the battle against the distortion of Holocaust memory, maintaining the truth about what happened is essential.

The remembrance of the Holocaust is also important for society at large. Almost sixty-five years after the war, many have learned few lessons from history and are inclined to repeat, in today’s changed environment, the mistakes of the past. Maintaining Holocaust memory is a tool that can perhaps to some extent prevent this.

In postmodern society, distortion has fragmented and will proliferate further. Thus the battle against distortion must be fought on a great many fronts. It cannot be seen as incidental or occurring in isolation. It is one major issue in the framework of the correct memory of the Shoah.

Modes of Action

The analysis in the previous chapters has provided insight not only into the many categories of distortion but also into what motivates many distorters. It has further shown a variety of reactions to the distortions. Using this infrastructure one can better understand how to battle the many manipulations of the Holocaust.

In order to develop an integrated approach to combating the distortion of the Holocaust, a large number of institutions and individuals must be involved. In addition to those institutions focusing specifically on the Holocaust, these should include governments, parliaments, the judiciary, media, and so on.

The maintenance of the memory of the Holocaust consists of many types of actions, all of which are practiced today to varying degrees. Within the framework of this struggle, a number of endeavors play an important role.

“Market Research”

A major effort must be made to better understand current attitudes toward the Holocaust. This will require what can best be called “market research.” One important source could be a study among those who work at concentration- camp memorial sites and other institutions that play a role in memorializing the Shoah.

To give one example, during a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 2005 this author had an informal conversation with one of the staff members of the memorial center. It was clear that many inhabitants of the neighboring town of Celle were not particularly enchanted with the institution. Citizens of that town had at their own initiative participated in the murder of many deportees, in what became known as the “Hare Hunt of Celle” (Die Celler Hasenjagd).3


Holocaust research provides an improved factual infrastructure to combat distortion. Much of such research has been carried out over the past two decades. The scholarly interest in the Holocaust has grown considerably in parallel to the increased attention given to the Nazi-era murder of the Jews in society at large. Nevertheless, much research still remains to be done. The quantity of information on certain countries is very limited. Bauer says, for instance, that only minimal material is available on a number of countries such as the Ukraine, Greece, and Croatia.4

At the time he also said that the history of inner Jewish life in destroyed communities remained largely unresearched. Bauer pointed out that detailed studies were necessary because otherwise general pictures might remain distorted.

This is the more so as Jews behaved differently in various places and they also viewed the surrounding societies differently.5

Sometimes studies on a specific issue can alter perceptions in a major way. One very important example was Gross’s book Neighbors. It exposed one major subject — the collective murder of the Jews of Jedwabne by their ethnic-Polish neighbors.

Michlic summarized the book’s impact:

Gross’s narration challenges the self-image of Poles as only victims. Ethnic Poles from Jedwabne are depicted as vicious murderers who showed no mercy to their Jewish victims. These images provide a shocking contrast to the cherished self-image of Poles as martyrs and heroes, and the interlinked image of Poles as key witnesses to the Holocaust who overwhelmingly demonstrated solidarity toward the Polish Jews.6

The Dutch Holocaust expert Johannes Houwink ten Cate points to one among several important developments in Holocaust research:

The creation of a world-wide research community, which now includes scholars from Israel, the US, the UK, both Western and Eastern Europe, and Canada and Australia. Not yet included are scholars from Africa and Asia. The boundaries of this community are essentially the boundaries of that part of the world that during the Cold War was named “The Free West” and Eastern Europe.

This points to the fact that Holocaust awareness is a way to discuss the political values of the West. It also is an instrument to strengthen democratic awareness in Eastern Europe. My students study the Holocaust because they want to understand why humans kill.7

He added:

We see — in a number of countries but by no means everywhere — a strong interaction between Holocaust research and research on other modern genocides, while the Holocaust remains the paradigmatic genocide, if only because of the ideological radicalism of Nazism and the sheer number of its Jewish victims. Since Rwanda, for example, there has been a strong focus on open-air executions in the Holocaust. Scholars of modern genocides draw heavily upon the highly sophisticated historiography of the Holocaust. By doing this they have made enormous progress. This is especially evident in the research of the Armenian and Rwandan genocides.8

Developments in Perception

When discussing differences concerning social environment and the development of research between the two editions of the Encyclopedia Judaica, Berenbaum said one important issue was the relationship between the Holocaust and the law.

Those who  wrote  [an entry on “Holocaust and Law”] in the previous edition described the Nazi deeds as an outlaw phenomenon. The transition in this edition is dramatic because it tries to show laws as instruments of persecution. The Nazis tried to give a façade of legality to everything they did. Consequently one had less of a prosecution brief against them. Instead, we present an extended essay on how legal means and the legal profession were used as an instrumentality of destruction.9

These examples can only give a glimpse of how important research is for laying an improved infrastructure for the battle against Holocaust distortion. They also show how views evolve over time. A more fundamental question is to what extent Holocaust studies will survive as a separate discipline within the framework of modern historical research. A number of centers address other genocides in addition to the Holocaust. These genocides’ place in the future of historical research may not be assured either.


Survivors’ testimonies play an important role in Holocaust research. They do so as well in education, at ceremonies, and in several other categories. Their importance derives from the fact that the survivors are the last eyewitnesses who can tell personal stories of what happened. What will happen once they are gone is a problem that increasingly engages people devoted to preserving the memory of the Holocaust (for instance, at Yad Vashem, where survivors’ testimonies are seen as a central part of its educational efforts).

Three major projects, and also some more limited ones, have collected survivors’ testimonies. Yad Vashem contains over 125 million pages of documentary evidence, 420,000 photographs, and over 100,000 survivor testimonies. Established in 1953, the archives also hold filmed footage. The library contains over 120,000 publications in fifty-four languages including survivor memoirs, Yizkor (remembrance) books, Nazi publications, newspapers, and journals from the era. It includes much information on pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Poland and other centers of Jewish life, emphasizing what was lost.

Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names contains over three million names of Holocaust victims and, for many of them, additional personal information. Yad Vashem seeks to provide information that contributes to Holocaust awareness and to combating Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. It stresses that films have the power to combine historical facts with emotional impact and through this medium, uses the testimonies and other images to paint a picture of the atrocities that took place.10

In 1994, the Steven Spielberg Foundation started to collect testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides. The project, which is now closed, interviewed fifty-two thousand survivors. It merged with the University of Southern California to ensure a sustained “preservation and access” to the digital archives. The foundation is aimed at overcoming “prejudice, intolerance and bigotry.” It seeks to educate the student body, researchers, and educators. Its digital capabilities make it far easier for more and more people to access testimonies around the world. It offers access in a number of languages, and to over fifty-eight collections in twenty-two countries. By 2009, the project had reached over seventy-eight thousand schools.11

A project at Yale University aims to collect video testimonies from survivors in more than twenty-five countries. Besides the Holocaust it also addresses other genocides, though it does have a specific research program on the Holocaust. It focuses on the study of psychiatric  patients  in  Israel  with  a  Holocaust past.

Based on research on nine hundred Israeli citizens, the project claims that had these people managed to express themselves and give their testimonies, their rehabilitation would have been somewhat eased. They are now focusing on analyzing the videotexts to define exactly which types of psychotic disorder these people are most likely to suffer from.12

An example of a more limited project is the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program of the Azrieli Foundation in Canada. It was established in 2005 and aims “to collect, preserve and share the memoirs and diaries written by survivors of the twentieth-century Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe who later made their way to Canada.”13

The Holocaust Restitution Process

Some developments lead to periods of renewed interest in the Holocaust. One major case concerns the debate on restitution in the second half of the 1990s and early twenty-first century. It has also played an important role in bringing forth documentation. In many of the countries where there were Jewish claims of funds relating to the Holocaust, major historical research was undertaken. Tens of thousands of pages have been published since the subject of restitution again received major attention.

The restitution issue also concerns countries that were not occupied by Germany. Helen Junz, who served as a member of the Bergier Commission, which was given a wide mandate to cover Swiss history, writes:

While the tightening of Swiss admission policies in 1938 was similar to that in other countries, only Switzerland, and Sweden until 1942, applied racist selection criteria based on Nazi definitions. One example was the introduction of a visa for German “non-Aryans” in October 1938, with which the Nuremberg laws were incorporated into Swiss immigration requirements.

In 1942 the authorities closed Swiss borders altogether, though well aware of the tragic consequences of this act and in the face of increasing public protest. The Commission thus concluded that “By…making it more difficult for refugees to reach safety, and by handing over the refugees caught directly to their persecutors, the Swiss authorities were instrumental in helping the Nazi regime to attain its goals.”14


Learning about the Holocaust can be part of both formal and informal education. In a number of countries the Holocaust is taught in the mandatory school system. Holocaust education can also be part of voluntary efforts in the framework of special projects. Yad Vashem, for instance, held sixty international teachers’ seminars in 2008. For Jewish children Holocaust education may take place in summer camps, after-school programs, Sunday school, Hebrew school, and so on.

Beyond hearing testimonies of Holocaust survivors, one of the educational experiences with the strongest impact on youth is visits to various concentration or extermination camps. Such visits, undertaken by Jewish and non-Jewish school pupils and university students from many different countries, have increased over the past decades — in part thanks to the increased accessibility of camps in the former communist countries.

The largest single annual event of this kind is the March of the Living, which takes thousands of students to Auschwitz in Poland, and then to Israel for Israeli Independence Day celebrations. The trip is popular among many Jewish youth groups. It has also drawn criticism — for instance, for being a mass-event where the educational aspect is somewhat lost in pageantry. Others take exception to the direct Zionist lesson drawn from the Holocaust; ending with a visit in Israel implies that a strong, independent Jewish state is the only response to a catastrophe like the Holocaust.

Different pupils come away with diverse experiences and conclusions from the visits to these camps, depending on their level of knowledge, whether they have a personal family connection to the Holocaust, and also from which countries they come. But undoubtedly, such visits serve to increase Holocaust awareness among the younger generations, giving them an opportunity to commemorate the Holocaust and anchoring that memory to their historical consciousness and collective memory. Experience shows that the better the preparation before such trips, the more participants reap from them.

Effectiveness of Education

Not  all  Holocaust  education  is  effective.  Urban,  in  an  essay  in  this volume, criticizes certain aspects of Holocaust education in Germany and observes:

Classroom teaching on the Holocaust often was, and still is, deficient. It focused on statistics and dry descriptions of deportations or how the persecution developed through the racial and anti-Jewish laws. The courses generally culminated in Auschwitz by showing a documentary or some photos of piles of dead bodies.

This approach often had no effect on the students; learning facts and statistics was not connected to personal experience and did not lead them to see the Holocaust as part of their own history, identity, and national consciousness. Immigrant students also often did not gain a connection to the Holocaust because they were not taught about it as something not only connected to Germany and Germans but also part of a European and worldwide legacy.

An even more guarded attitude is taken by Stephen Smith, a practicing Christian who, together with his brother James, founded the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in Nottingham, UK:

There is a very big leap between knowing about the Holocaust and being changed by it. There is a presumption that, if you teach the Holocaust, it makes for a better world; but I don’t buy it. We need to know what happened; but there’s a big leap between knowing what happened and acting on it. I am less worried about what the grandparents of our young generation did sixty years ago; I am more concerned about what this generation’s grandchildren will do. Will they have learned anything?15

When reading the words of literary scholar Lawrence L. Langer, one senses his hesitation about how to make Holocaust education effective after having taught Holocaust history classes for almost thirty years.

I have always believed that students flock to Holocaust courses not because such courses are fashionable but because they have a deep-lying interest in the Final Solution’s criminals and victims, so one of my main goals as a teacher of the Holocaust has been to subvert stereotypical thinking; for example, that only sadists  could  organize  and  execute  an  atrocity like the murder of European Jewry or that all victims went unresistingly to their deaths. But perhaps most important in the list of misunderstood matters is the demise of significant choice for the inmates of the deathcamps.16

Sarkozy’s Proposal

At a dinner of CRIF, the umbrella body of French Jewish organizations on 13 February 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy presented a new proposal for education on the Holocaust. He suggested that at the beginning of the school year, each child in fourth grade should start to study the memory of one of the eleven thousand French Jewish children who were victims of the Holocaust. A 2000 poll had found that more than 50 percent of the youngsters aged sixteen to twenty-four had said they were underinformed on the subject.

The proposition was badly received in general. The very young age group of targeted nine-year-olds was one, but far from the only, problem. Only 6 percent of those polled on behalf of the daily Le Parisien were in favor of the proposal. Thirty-one percent thought the whole class should study the fate of one child victim of the Holocaust, while 61 percent opposed both ideas. On the other hand, 61 percent said it was important to pass on the memory of the children of the Holocaust to the next generation; 36 percent were opposed.17

There was also much criticism from intellectuals as well as teachers’ unions, which saw Sarkozy’s proposal as interference in education. Education Minister Xavier Darcos thereupon appointed a commission to study the matter.

The International Task Force (ITF)

The ITF (Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research) plays an important role in addressing several of the key aspects of the Holocaust in our time. It was initiated by Swedish prime minister Göran Persson in 1998. He did so because of his concern about neo-Nazism among youngsters and the influence of Holocaust deniers in Sweden.

A Swedish initiative was a book titled Tell ye your children… that was widely distributed throughout the country. Persson said in the Swedish parliament:

In hundreds of thousands of Swedish homes and thousands of classrooms, the book titled Tell ye your children…has formed the basis for a discussion between the generations about fundamental democratic and humanistic values, about right and wrong.

Pupils and teachers, parents and children, politicians and experts — all of us need to discuss the connections between the horrors of our past and the dangers we face today. We have to try to understand the underlying mechanisms.18

In January 2000, Persson organized the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust. Bauer observes: “It was the first time in history that politicians, among them many heads of state, met to discuss education. The subject of that unique event was the Holocaust.”19

The Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust has a number of components. Its opening statement asserts: “The unprecedented character of the Holocaust will always hold universal meaning. After half a century, it remains an event close enough in time that survivors can still bear witness to the horrors that engulfed the Jewish people.” The declaration mentions the need to battle genocide and anti-Semitism, as well as understanding the causes of the Holocaust and reflecting on its consequences. It also contains a pledge to promote Holocaust education in schools, universities, and communities, and to encourage research and remembrance.20

In 2009, the ITF had twenty-seven member states, mainly European ones but also Argentina, Canada, and the United States. The members represent governments as well as governmental organizations and NGOs. Membership is open to all countries provided they are committed to the above declaration of the Stockholm Forum.21

Norway’s Moral Relativism

The chairmanship of the Task Force changes every year. In March 2009, Norway became the chair, which, for many reasons, was a poor choice. A month earlier Norway had inaugurated the Hamsun year, in honor of the pro-Nazi author and Hitler admirer. The festivities were opened by the Norwegian queen. Whitewashing a Nazi supporter, no matter how important he may be as an author, is the opposite of what the ITF stands for.

In one reaction Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington wrote:

Each of the countries belonging to the task force has pledged to carry out the eight-point final declaration of the Stockholm Conference. Point number six is particularly relevant to the Knut Hamsun controversy: “We share a commitment to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to honor those who stood against it.”

This puts the Norwegian government in something of a bind, because instead of  honoring  “those  who  stood against  the  Holocaust,” such as [Norwegian Nobel Prize in Literature winner Sigrid] Undset, it is honoring someone who stood for it. In the 1940s, Undset and Hamsun made their choices. Undset sided with good, Hamsun with evil. Today, Norway too must make a choice, between venerating the memory of the Holocaust, and desecrating it. It cannot do both.22

This controversy was just one of the many reasons the country was a poor choice for the chairmanship. Others include the government’s attitude toward the Holocaust-inverting diplomat Trine Lilleng and Minister Halvorsen’s participation in an anti-Israeli demonstration where there were shouts of “Death to the Jews.”23


Different museums clearly have different agendas and goals, but in general museums aim to educate, to commemorate, and to engage their visitors. By their nature, museums can shape the public’s understanding of the past; they can create, strengthen, or challenge a historical narrative. (Museums share this capacity with the media, for instance.) The number of Holocaust museums has increased greatly in recent decades.24

The importance of several museums in maintaining Holocaust remembrance is evident from the large numbers of people who visit them. A major example is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. It opened in April 1993 and, by 1 January 2009, had had over twenty-eight million visitors. Of these 88 percent were Americans and 34 percent school-age children. More than 3,500 officials, including eighty-eight heads of state or governments, had visited the museum.25

In Israel a visit to Yad Vashem is, for state visits, de facto protocol. This visit symbolizes Israel’s worldview. Taking an official guest to a memorial to six million civilians — including the elderly, women, and children — intentionally murdered for who they were, emphasizes a central element of Israel’s collective memory.

Yad Vashem

Arguably the most important Holocaust museum is Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It was established by a law passed by the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in the 1950s and is not merely a museum but an institution dedicated to commemoration, research, and education. The museum, albeit probably the best known of its kind, is a part of that larger endeavor.

Yad Vashem’s location also has a symbolic meaning. It is situated on Har Hazikaron, the Mount of Memory, on what once were the western outskirts of Jerusalem. Next to the Yad Vashem complex is Mount Herzl, on the summit of which Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, is buried. He is surrounded by presidents, prime ministers, and speakers of the Knesset. On the slopes of Mount Herzl there is also a large military cemetery.

The area of Har Hazikaron is the physical focus of national commemorations and celebrations in the week that constitutes the annual high point of the Israeli “civil religion.” That week starts with Holocaust Remembrance Day and ends with Israeli Independence Day, preceded by Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror.

By placing the commemoration of the Holocaust in such close proximity, both in space and time, to the commemoration of the fallen soldiers and the celebration of the reestablishment of national freedom, these elements are made part of a common narrative framework. This framework suggests that, following the suffering in the Holocaust, the Jewish people fought even harder for their independence and, finally, many could leave the Diaspora and reestablish a sovereign state in the Land of Israel.

In this way, the Holocaust has become a central part of Israeli national self- understanding and collective memory. This goes even beyond the many Israeli citizens’ personal loss of family and friends in the Holocaust.

As mentioned earlier, a visit to Yad Vashem is included in every official visit by foreign dignitaries to the state of Israel. In this way, the Foreign Ministry signals to these officials the centrality of the Holocaust and also that the Jewish people has not forgotten what it is like to be a defenseless people in a largely hostile or indifferent world. The state of Israel thus shows that it considers its security, and that of the Jewish people, of prime importance.

There are many other aspects of such visits; for instance, the emphasis on how Jews lived during the Holocaust years and not just how they died. Another concerns the Righteous among the Nations. There is the universal message of the Holocaust, as well as the particularistic one concerning the Jewish people, and so on.

Monuments and Memorials

Although monuments and memorials are quite similar in practical terms, they are not completely interchangeable: “Monuments are usually built to commemorate a significant person or event in history, or a period of time. Memorials are usually related to death and destruction. But the distinction between the two sometimes is blurred.”26

Monuments and memorials are more restricted in their capacity than museums. Since they are much smaller in scope, they serve merely to show and remind of — much as their names indicate — a specific aspect of history such as a person, group of people, or event.

In the case of the Holocaust, monuments and memorials remind the public primarily of some particular aspect of the genocide. They often list the names of those murdered in a certain city or area. They can hardly shape the historical narrative, but only relate to it — either by strengthening and confirming it or by challenging it.

There are many memorials to the Holocaust all over the world. Many Jewish cemeteries throughout Europe have such memorials, some large and splendid and some more modest, reminding the visitors of the murdered, many of whom have no burial place. Another common form of memorial relating to the Holocaust is that of plaques set up on buildings where Jews lived, to which they were brought, or from which they were deported to their deaths. There is a distinct difference between memorials that are in a Jewish location and those in the public domain, addressing society at large.

There are fewer monuments dedicated to the Holocaust. Many of them are in memory of those who resisted the Germans and their helpers in some way

— either by organizing and taking part in armed resistance or by aiding Jews to escape the Holocaust. A well-known example of the former is Nathan Rapaport’s monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, at the site of the ghetto. Among the more recent and less well-known monuments is the Raoul Wallenberg monument in Stockholm, erected in the 1990s. It commemorates the heroism of the Swedish businessman-turned-diplomat who saved thousands of

Hungarian Jews from deportation to Auschwitz in the last months of the war.

Ceremonies/Remembrance Days

Much like monuments, ceremonies serve to anchor historical events in the collective memory and reconfirm or challenge the hegemonic historical narrative. However, since such commemorations are more flexible, they can in fact do more to conduct a dialogue with that narrative. On the other hand, ceremonies, as opposed to monuments, are short-lived.

One important step in maintaining Holocaust memory was the institution of an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January by the United Nations, as designated by a UN General Assembly Resolution in November 2005. This date was chosen as on it the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was liberated. This decision should be valued. Previously, various countries had already established a specific day to remember the Holocaust. Retaining and safeguarding such achievements is a constant battle, since there are those who would like to either dilute or alter the message of Holocaust commemoration.

Nowadays the Holocaust is commemorated annually in many countries. In 2005 in particular, sixty years after the war ended, much additional emphasis was placed on this commemoration. This occurred partly in the context of ceremonies recalling the liberation of Auschwitz and other camps.


Holocaust art has much in common with monuments and memorials — which often are works of art — but also reaches beyond them. Some works of art do not necessarily refer to the Holocaust but, because they were shaped at that time, they remind the public of it. Others recall the Holocaust because the artist honored was killed during it. This is, for instance, the case in the Felix Nussbaum House in his town of birth, Osnabruck. Those who visit this museum are confronted with the painter’s murder in Auschwitz.

Similarly there is always a confrontation with the lethal aspects of the Holocaust when Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis is performed. He composed this opera during his detention in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Ullman was later murdered in Auschwitz.

A similar Holocaust association is raised when the children’s opera Brundibár is staged. It was composed in 1938 by Hans Krasa and was first performed in a Jewish orphanage in Prague. By then the composer had already been deported to Theresienstadt. Most of the children performers followed later. Krasa and most of the cast were murdered in Auschwitz.27


Literature is probably the most expressive and complex way to convey a certain message or historical narrative. The poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan gave a powerful expression to World War II history in his “Todesfuge” (Fugue of Death), where he wrote, “Death is a master from Germany.”

Initially Holocaust literature consisted of documentation and first-person accounts. Later this was followed by a flow of fiction. Literature scholar Elrud Ibsch has pointed out that the fictional use of the Shoah as a theme meant the loss of moral superiority inherent in its documentation.28

An even more fundamental issue concerns the role of aesthetics in society after the Holocaust, as addressed, for instance, by Theodor W. Adorno. Well remembered is his statement: “The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”29

One wonders whether all the written fantasies of authors, creating characters who experienced the Shoah, are anything more than structurally inadequate and failed attempts to address a theme that requires ongoing rational analysis, far more than the novelist’s inventiveness. The endless fantasies on the struggle for survival and human relations, sometimes including love affairs between perpetrators and victims, pale next to the actual stories of the murder of millions of people. Sometimes the works of art even pervert their memory.

Cole writes that “Hollywood from ‘Anne Frank’ to ‘Oskar Schindler’ offers a ‘Holocaust’ which ‘still believes that humans are good at heart.’ It constructs an ‘Auschwitz’ and a ‘Holocaust’ it can come to terms with…. And as those who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau are nothing more than ashes now, contemporary Hollywood can ignore them.”30

Yet art is often a major factor in the change of perceptions. This has also been the case here. It is television series such as NBC’s Holocaust and movies such as

Schindler’s List that probably have done more for the globalization of Holocaust memory than many other, far more accurate efforts to inform the public about it. In this case art has perhaps changed society more than documentation, though that would not have been possible without the major efforts invested in Holocaust research and documentation.

Novick mentions that nearly one hundred million Americans watched all or most of the four-part nine-and-a-half-hour miniseries Holocaust in April 1978.

As was often observed at the time, more information about the Holocaust was imparted to more Americans over those four nights than over all the preceding thirty years…the series was able to cover all of the principal landmarks: the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, the Wannsee Conference, Babi Yar, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. The miniseries was a mini-survey course.31

Beker gives two examples of how Holocaust movies have influenced individuals in their actions. Bjarte Bruland, a student at Norway’s Bergen University researched the confiscating of Jewish property in Norway after seeing Lanzmann’s Shoah. In 1997, Christopher Meili, a security guard at the Union Bank of Switzerland, exposed the destruction of wartime documents by his employers after having been affected by Schindler’s List.32

Hochhuth’s The Deputy

The public perception of the attitude of Pope Pius XII during the war was greatly changed when in 1963, the controversial German author Rolf Hochhuth published his theater play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy). It had a major negative impact on the image of this pope.

Novick described it as “a savage indictment of Pius’ inaction, attributing it to his Germanophilia, his anti-Sovietism, and the preeminent importance he attached to the narrowest of Vatican interests. In Europe the performance of the play had everywhere produced angry confrontations, including violence: the antagonists were usually Protestants and Catholics, with Jews on the sidelines.”33

Wistrich wrote that this semidocumentary play “almost single-handedly transformed Pius XII from a ‘good guy’ basking in almost universal approval at the height of the Cold War to a cold, calculating and callous figure. He suddenly appeared as a man of near-criminal weakness and shocking indifference to the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust.”34

Commemorative Projects

Commemorative projects are often educational, that is, they recognize the value in commemorating and instilling a lesson from the past for the public good. Others are existential, stemming from a personal need to remember and commemorate. Such individual projects can also be brought into the framework of education, museums, monuments, art, and ceremonies.

One private initiative that drew worldwide attention became known as the Paper Clips Project. In the small town of Whitwell, Tennessee, a Holocaust education class was started in 1998 in the local middle school. The students asked the teacher if they could collect something that related to the Holocaust. They decided to gather six million paper clips to represent the six million Jews murdered. The project gradually became known. It was written about in 2001 in the Washington Post and later information about it was broadcast on NBC News.35 An estimated thirty million paper clips have been collected.

A movie titled Paper Clips was produced about the project. After it had run commercially, the ADL developed an educational program to accompany a DVD version of the film. The program and DVD have been made available to middle and high schools, and this has helped make the project even more widely known.36

Another private initiative that has developed into an international Holocaust memorial project is that of the “stumbling blocks” (Stolpersteine). It was developed by the German sculptor Gunter Demnig. The project consists of brass- covered stones placed in pavements in front of buildings where people who were murdered by the Nazis had lived. Most of these are in memory of Jews, but there are “stumbling blocks” for others as well. Many thousands have been installed in Germany and the project has now been expanded to include other countries as well. The text on a typical brass-covered stone includes the name of the person remembered, his/her birthdate and, if known, the date of death.37

One innovative program is the Crocus Project in Ireland. The Holocaust Education Trust of Ireland provides schools with yellow crocus bulbs to plant in autumn. This is done in memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children and thousands of others who died in the Holocaust. The yellow color of the flowers symbolizes the yellow Star of David all Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule.

The Crocus Project is meant for pupils aged eleven to twelve and introduces these children to the Holocaust. In Ireland the crocus blooms at the end of January around the time of International Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January). When people admire the flowers, the children can explain what they represent. Other countries have also become involved in this project.38

Another program of great consequence is the planting of trees at Yad Vashem in memory of specific Righteous Gentiles. Martin Gilbert points out the importance of remembering these Righteous for society at large:

When the Holocaust is finally beyond living memory, the desire to remember and honour those who extended a helping held will remain. This is a question not only of recognizing individual bravery, but of providing a reminder that it is possible for human beings, in situations where civilized values are being undermined, to find the strength of character and purpose to resist the evil impulses of the age, and to try to rescue the victims of barbarity. 39


Making laws in connection to preserving the memory of the Holocaust usually comesintwo forms. One is by setting up institutions for Holocaust commemoration. Examples are Israel’s Yad Vashem Law of 1953 and Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day Law of 1959, as well as various countries’ decisions to make 27 January their Holocaust Memorial Day. A second is by creating legislation banning Holocaust denial. This last aspect touches upon a larger issue of freedom of speech and what kind of repellent opinions should be allowed in public without harming the necessary openness of a liberal, democratic society.

Holocaust-law expert Michael Bazyler writes:

As a result of the enormous suffering inflicted upon the world by the Nazi regime, and especially Europe, a number of European countries have enacted laws criminalizing both the denial of the Holocaust and the promotion of Nazi ideology.

The aim of these laws is to prevent the resurrection of Nazism in Europe by stamping out at the earliest opportunity — or to use the phrase “to nip it in the bud” — any public reemergence of Nazi views, whether through speech, symbols, or public association.…

The anti-Nazi laws do not exist in every European country. Presently, the following European countries have some legislation criminalizing the Nazi message, including denial of the Holocaust: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland. Holocaust denial is also illegal in Israel.

Some of these countries, like Germany and Austria, take these laws very seriously and vigilantly prosecute both speech and behavior having any reference to Nazis and Nazism. Others, like Lithuania and Romania, despite laws on the books, enforce them sporadically.

A last set of countries put a higher value on free speech over suppression of neo-Nazism and freely allow promotion of the Nazi message. In these countries, freedom of the press and freedom of speech are vehemently upheld even to the detriment of other rights. These countries include the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Scandinavian nations.40

In a symposium on the subject, law professor Alan Dershowitz claimed that it would be wrong to prohibit Holocaust denial, saying: “Experience has shown that it is far better to live in a society in which false facts — even facts as false as Holocaust denial — are not criminalized, than in a society that puts people in jail for the malicious lies.”41

This opinion might be considered a typically American one as free speech is one of the most highly valued foundational principles of this society. European experience based on the pre-Holocaust period does not bear out this position. At present free speech is most endangered by forces from the Muslim world. They want to limit it in order to avoid the increasing criticism of Islam. This creates counterforces in European society who turn free speech into a battle horse. Holocaust abuses such as denial may well become one of the best indicators of where this battle stands.

Holocaust inversion is at least as dangerous as Holocaust denial. It is included in the common definition of anti-Semitism as used increasingly in international gatherings, yet nowhere is it a punishable offense. Another growing area where legislation has been falling short is cyberspace. The problems with hate speech there are likely to grow. This may well lead to increasing abuses of Holocaust memory.

Free Speech and the Internet

Unlimited free speech allows the spread of even the most extreme distortions of Holocaust memory. There is a major difference of views here between Americans and many Europeans. The United States Constitution stipulates the right to free speech. This leads to a tolerant position toward hate propagation. Many racist Internet sites from Europe have therefore sought refuge in the United States.

As Rabbi Abraham Cooper put it,

Elsewhere in the world, attitudes about where to draw the line between free speech and the rhetoric of hate have evolved quite differently from the U.S. German authorities, for example, have complained for a long time that many neo-Nazi sites targeting German kids in German were supported by providers in the United States. The German authorities monitor over 3,000 websites, of which only a few are Islamic ones. All German governments have made a very fundamental commitment to fight Nazism, and the law makes expression of it illegal.42

With the growth in the new media, these will have to play an increasing role in the battle against abuse of Holocaust memory. It will be necessary to post accurate information and documentation on the web — especially in many languages so people can learn about the Holocaust in their native tongue. And while many new threats will develop on the interactive Internet, it will also provide important opportunities.

The Prosecution of War Criminals

Some actions that draw attention to the Holocaust will fade away with time. One example is the battle for the prosecution of Holocaust war criminals. This still is significant today, even if it only concerns a negligible percentage of those who committed crimes.

Zuroff stresses that this activity is not only part of the fight for justice, but also an important component of the struggle for historical truth. In addition, he thinks it will help foster Holocaust education and combat anti-Semitism.

He observes:

The battle for historical accuracy and historical truth is currently taking place primarily in post-Communist Europe. These countries, where significant sectors of the local population assisted the Nazis, have become independent and mostly democratic in the last fifteen years. Now for the first time, they can honestly confront the complicity of their own population in the Shoah. They are currently writing their textbooks anew and establishing a new national narrative.

In 2002, the Simon Wiesenthal Center Israel and the Targum Shlishi Foundation in Miami launched Operation: Last Chance to help facilitate the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, primarily in postcommunist Europe. Zuroff says: “It is very important that the issue of local complicity be dealt with and that the truth be widely disseminated. Operation: Last Chance attempts to put this issue at the top of the national agenda.” The educational aspects of the program were designed to sensitize people to the history of the Holocaust and focus public attention on the questions that people in these countries should be asking themselves.43

Innovative Attempts

As new distortions of the Holocaust appear, and neo-Nazism manifests itself increasingly, one will see in many situations innovative attempts to develop responses. Some will be successful, some will not. One case in 2009 that backfired was the well-intentioned reaction to the adoption of part of a highway outside Springfield, in the state of Missouri, by a group of neo-Nazis.44

In the past Missouri officials had tried in vain to block the Ku Klux Klan from adopting a highway as this infringed on free speech. Now the Missouri legislature took a different approach and voted to name this part of the road after the Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In this way the legislature sought to embarrass the Nazis. The rabbi’s daughter Susannah Heschel, who teaches Jewish studies at Dartmouth University, said that while she appreciated the intention, “it’s inappropriate. I don’t think that my father would have felt honored by this.”45

The Public Discourse

This book has presented many examples of how the Holocaust has been manipulated. This has been a growing trend, and there are many indications that it will continue to increase. Such a growth in Holocaust manipulation is in part an accompanying phenomenon of the increased interest in the Holocaust in society at large in recent decades. As long as people find the Holocaust interesting or relevant, others are going to abuse it for their own purposes, whether anti-Semitic or not.

Hence it remains important that those who do care about the memory of the Holocaust are active in the public discourse, speaking up when the Holocaust is abused or manipulated in various ways. This chapter has given some examples of main areas where such watchfulness is required, and where a constant critical debate about Holocaust abuse will be essential — but also where such debate will have the chance to do considerable good.

Those who feel committed to preserving the memory of the Holocaust should also take an active role in shaping the public discourse about the commemoration of the Holocaust, its meaning, and what lessons are to be drawn from it.


In an increasingly uncertain world, the Holocaust is likely to continue to play an important role as the metaphor of absolute evil. This is true despite a certain fatigue in some Western circles regarding the mention of the Holocaust and its consequences.

As threats of genocide have again become part of public statements, this in itself will direct attention to the Holocaust, which remains the paradigm of genocide. The expansion of overall research in the field of genocide studies also brings with it additional interest in the Holocaust.

In line with these developments, the universe of Holocaust distortion is also expanding. The most effective first step to cope with these manipulations is developing the structural scheme laid down in this book, which attempts to view the phenomenon of Holocaust-memory abuse as a whole.

In conclusion, fighting the main manipulations of the Holocaust requires first understanding the nature of the abuses. This has to be followed by exposing the perpetrators, who must then be turned into the accused.


  1. Emil Fackenheim, The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 23–24.
  1. Mikael Tossavainen, “Calendar, Context and Commemoration: Establishing an Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day,” in Klas-Göran Karlsson and Ulf Zander, , Echoes of the Holocaust: Historical Cultures in Contemporary Europe (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2003), 61.
  2. Tim Wegener, “Die Celler ‘Hasenjagd’. Darstellung, Erinnerung, Gedächtnis und Aufarbeitung,”UniversitätHannover,2003[German],www.celle-im-nationalsozialismus. de/Texte/wegener.html.
  3. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “From Propagating Myths to Holocaust Research,” an interview with Yehuda Bauer, in Europe’s Crumbling Myths (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2003),
  4. Ibid.
  5. Joanna Michlic, “Coming to Terms with the ‘Dark Past’: The Polish Debate about the Jedwabne Massacre,” ACTA, 21 (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2002), 8–9.
  6. Johannes Houwink ten Cate, “The Future of Holocaust Studies,” lecture presented at JCPA sessions of World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, 3 August 2009.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “The Transformation of Jewish Knowledge over the Decades: The New Edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica,” an interview with Michael Berenbaum, Changing Jewish Communities, 27, 16 December 2007.
  12., viewed 2 September 2009.
  13. Helen Junz, “Confronting Holocaust History: The Bergier Commission’s Research on Switzerland’s Past,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 8, 1 May 2003.
  14. Ori Golan, “In Memory of Tomorrow,” Jerusalem Post Magazine, 11 October 2002.
  15. Lawrence Langer, Preempting the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 196.
  16. “61% des Français contre l’idée de Sarkozy,” com, 22 June 2008 [French], viewed 2 July 2009.
  17. Speech by the Prime Minister, Göran Persson at the Swedish Parliament, 27 January 2000.
  18. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “From Propagating Myths to Holocaust Research: Preparing for an Education,” interview with Yehuda Bauer, in Europe’s Crumbling Myths, 118.
  19.,  viewed   29   June 2009.
  20. htm, viewed 29 June 2009.
  21. Rafael Medoff, “A Tale of 2 Norwegian Nobel Prize Winners for Literature,” Jerusalem Post, 29 June 2009.
  22. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Norway’s Nazi Problem,” FrontPage Magazine, 26 June 2009.
  25. See the interview with Ivan Ceresnjes in this volume.
  26., viewed 16 July 2009.
  27. Elrud Ibsch, Die Shoah erzählt: Zeugnis und Experiment in der Literatur (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2004), 45 [German].
  28. Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms: Cultural Criticism and Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1967), 19.
  1. Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust (New York; Routledge, 2000), 93.
  2. Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 209.
  3. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Restitution Issues Destroy National Myths,” interview with Avi Beker, in Europe’s Crumbling Myths, 166.
  4. Peter Novick, The Holocaust, 143.
  5. Robert Wistrich, “Pius XII and the Shoah,” Antisemitism International, 2004, 11.
  6. Leisah Namm, “Six Million Paper Clips,” Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, 4 February 2005.
  7. ADL, Press Release, no date.
  9. “The Crocus Project,” Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland, uploads/file/The%20Crocus%20Project%20English%20Version.pdf.
  10. Martin Gilbert, The Righteous (London: Black Swan, 2003), 530.
  11. Michael Bazyler, “Holocaust Denial Laws and Other Legislation Criminalizing Promotion of Nazism,” pdf, viewed 10 August 2009.
  12. Jamie Glazov, “Symposium: Criminalizing Holocaust Denial,” FrontPage Magazine, 27 July 2007.
  13. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Anti-Semitism and Terrorism on the Internet: New Threats,” interview with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 20-A, 16 May 2004.
  14. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Hunting Nazi Criminals; Operation: Last Chance,” an interview with Efraim Zuroff, Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 37, 2 October 2005.
  15. Michael Cooper, “Daughter against Use of Father’s Name to Subvert Neo-Nazis,” New York Times, 23 June 2009.
  16. Ibid.

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