The Abuse of Holocaust Memory Chapter Five: Holocaust De-Judaization

Holocaust de-Judaization consists of a variety of distortions of Holocaust memory. These include the broadening of the term Holocaust to various extents to include people other than Jews who were part of a genocide, or were murdered or died in World War II. A second type of de-Judaization is to void or minimize to a large extent the Jewish character of the victims. This is accompanied by stressing non- Jewish aspects of the Holocaust, taking it out of its specific historical context, and giving minimal attention to its uniqueness. This is often done in an attempt to promote an overall message for the human race. Sometimes these abuses overlap.

This de-Judaization should, however, not be confused with the laudable effort to draw conclusions for all humanity from the genocidal catastrophe caused to the Jewish people. One major aspect of humanity at large trying to integrate the Holocaust’s lessons into moral standards, is its having become an icon of absolute evil in many societies. That the Jews are often among the first to be attacked or victimized but never the last is an observation that can be proved from many other historical events.

Certain explanations of the Holocaust, however, lead implicitly to its de- Judaization. One such explanation, for instance, involves stressing the process of wartime brutalization instead of a premeditated plan to kill the Jews. This leads to the conclusion that the Jews were “accidental victims” of the Nazis, and that another group could have ended up in their position, or that their fate was the product of a development governed by chance. This is untrue. The Catholic Church and others had carried out a centuries-long demonization of the Jews that did not aim to kill them but was occasionally accompanied by pogroms. In European societies there existed a unique societal mental infrastructure concerning the Jews that others could further develop in the direction of trying to exterminate them.

One, but far from the only aspect of de-Judaization of the Holocaust, is the attempt to rob the Jews of their painful memories or to weaken their perceived hold on the memory of this genocide so as to use the memory of the Holocaust for some other purpose — sometimes even inversion, that is, accusing Israel of behaving like Nazis. The distortion of emptying the Holocaust of its Jewish content so as to universalize it is not only a historical falsification. It often also lays the infrastructure for distorted conclusions, including renewed anti- Semitism.


The Uniqueness of the Holocaust

There is a legitimate academic debate about whether the Holocaust was unique and to what extent. That some arguments from this debate are used for the abuse of Holocaust memory is a different matter. The scholars involved in the academic debate should not be associated with those who twist their words for sinister purposes.

Analyzing the nature of the various de-Judaizing distortions requires first defining the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Steven Katz pointed out that “the Holocaust is phenomenologically unique by virtue of the fact that never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualized policy, to annihilate physically every man, woman and child belonging to a specific people.”1 It would be too limited to say that this uniqueness consists solely in all Jews being targets of extermination.

Grobman elaborates that no other groups

were the primary target of the Nazis — not the mentally disabled, who were killed in the euthanasia centers in Germany (here it is to be noted that the Nazis did not export this program to the civilian populations outside the Reich); not the homosexuals, who were regarded as social deviants but for whom the Nazis did not have a consistent policy (homosexuals were persecuted only in the Reich and in areas annexed to it but not in countries the Germans occupied); not the Gypsies, who were partly seen as “asocial” aliens and Aryans within society and therefore did not have to be annihilated completely; and not the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and who declined to serve in the German army, but who were not marked for extinction; in fact, only a small number were incarcerated in the camps, and most of them were German nationals. The Nazis also did not single out every socialist, communist, trade unionist, or dissident — just those they perceived as a threat to the Reich. The Jews alone were the primary target of the Nazis.2

Although there is broad agreement on many core elements of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, scholars may differ on other specifics. Lipstadt says:

The true uniqueness of the Holocaust starts only after 1941, with the Nazi implementation of a systematic plan of murder. No other example exists of a modern government using all its forces (including post offices, banks, army, etc.) to annihilate an entire people: men, women, and children. This genocide occurred inside and outside Germany’s borders.

It is not the industrial and technological elements of the Holocaust which make it unique. If the Germans hadn’t created the gas chambers, they would have continued to kill people en masse like the Einsatzgruppen did. They probably would have murdered far fewer people in four years.


While there is no example of a situation that comprises all elements of the Holocaust, we can still use the Armenian genocide as a comparative tool. Likewise there are places in Bosnia where one may conduct a similar analysis, as that too included some elements of genocide.3

Bauer’s Viewpoint

Yehuda Bauer, professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Hebrew University, says:

The nonpragmatic character of the genocide of the Jews is one of the elements that differentiate it from other genocides. Other elements were the totality, that is, the desire to annihilate every single Jew defined as such by the Nazis; the universality, namely the idea, developed in stages, that Jews everywhere should be treated the same way that they were being treated in Nazi Europe; and the fact that special industrial enterprises were set up, in the death camps, for the purpose of producing (Jewish) corpses — an unprecedented historical fact.4

…The methods, timing, and stages in which these policies developed were determined by pragmatic considerations. The aim, however, was entirely nonpragmatic and, as noted, purely ideological. Thus the existence of ghettos, for instance in Bialystok and Lodz, was very important for the German war machine and was supported by local Nazi officials. Contrary to all modern capitalistic logic of cost-effectiveness, the ghettoes were annihilated, whether by orders from the Berlin center, or as a result of local initiatives responding to a consensus that developed in pursuance of ideological aims. Examples of this kind are legion.

…It is clear to all that the Shoah was a genocide, and as such it not only can, but must be compared with other genocides. Only then can it be determined whether it was different, and to what extent. Uniqueness generally means a onetime thing. If that is what the Shoah was, then it would never happen again, to anyone; it then would become irrelevant for the present and the future, and could be safely relegated to yearly liturgical observances, memorials, and the spouting of worn-out clichés, as our politicians are wont to do. Moreover, every historical event is unique, every people and their fate are unique.5

Thus, a number of criteria can be gleaned from these scholars of the Holocaust: totality (all Jews), universality (Jews everywhere), priority (all branches of the state were involved), industrial character, nonpracticality (instead of exploiting Jewish labor, they were killed). All these factors together make the Holocaust unprecedented. It is not unique, though, as it could happen again, both to Jews and others.


Emil L. Fackenheim

David Patterson writes that, when comparing the Shoah to other genocides, the philosopher Emil L. Fackenheim notes that

the Armenian genocide, for instance, was confined to the Turkish Empire,6 whereas the Nazis set out to exterminate every Jew on the face of the earth (this geographical confinement also applies to genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and the Sudan). He points out that the “North American Indians have survived in reservations; Jewish reservations in a victorious Nazi empire are inconceivable. Thus the Holocaust may be said to belong, with other catastrophes, to the species genocide. Within the species, defined as intended, planned and largely executed extermination, it is without precedent and, thus far at least, without sequel. It is — here the term really must be employed — unique.”7

Patterson expanded on Fackenheim’s views:

I would go even further and insist that the Holocaust is not reducible to a case of genocide, any more than it is reducible to any other historical or political phenomenon, in the strict sense, although it certainly includes those elements. The Nazis set out to annihilate more than a people. As we have maintained, they set out to annihilate a fundamental principle; to obliterate millennia of Jewish teaching and testimony; to destroy the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to eradicate a way of understanding God, world, and humanity embodied by the Jews in particular.8

Shafir addresses the difference between the Nazis’ crimes and those of the communists:

What does, indeed, make the Holocaust unique is the third dimension, which, unlike the Communist one, allowed no escape for the targeted victim. No Jew could ever become a “Nazi New Man,” no matter how much he or she might have been willing to undergo the transformation. Not so with the communist “class enemy.” The difference, I believe, pales all others, including the dispute on whether or not industrial mass murder is essentially different from other forms of physical destruction.9

Other Victims of Genocide by the Germans

It should be stressed that, for instance, both Roma and homosexuals suffered greatly at the hands of the Germans and many were murdered in camps. On a personal level, suffering cannot, and should not, be compared — that would be obscene. However, on a collective level, there are differences in the Jewish case and, for purposes of historical clarity, they should be noted.


The Nazi policy toward the Roma of Europe was ambivalent. There were some voices in the Nazi hierarchy that saw them as Aryans and thus worthy of living, but the line that won the day said their behavioral pattern should decide if they were to live or die. (In this they shared the fate of so-called “quarter-Jews” of German descent, who were only classified as Jews if they identified culturally with the Jewish community.)

For the Roma, this meant in practice that a distinction was made between vagrant and settled Roma. In some parts of occupied Europe, the vagrants were sent to camps, and in other parts the settled ones (who then presumably were seen to have degenerated from their natural, pure state). Those Roma who did end up in camps suffered a fate similar to that of the Jews, namely, death by gassing, and very few survived. The distinction lies in the policy that led to whether they were deported or not.

German — and later, during the war, Aryan — homosexuals were sent to concentration camps where they suffered greatly, at the hands of both the SS guards and other prisoners, who often were violently homophobic. Such violence was encouraged by the SS in the camps. Another reason that life in the camps was extra hard for homosexuals was that they did not have a community to fall back on for support (as did most others, such as the Poles or even the Jews).

As a result, most of the homosexual men who ended up in the camps wearing a pink triangle perished. Only homosexuality among men was a punishable offense in Nazi Germany, and only homosexuality among Aryans. This was because homosexuality was seen as something that weakened the race, and thus it did not matter if Poles, Russians, or other lower races were homosexuals; their race was considered to be weak anyway. Lesbianism was not a crime in Nazi Germany since women could always be forced to have children; nonetheless, openly gay women were sent to concentration camps as antisocials.10

Eastern Europe

The Soviet Union made it a policy to systematically de-Judaize the Holocaust in a different way. Jewish victims were included along with local victims and no attention was given to their being murdered because of their being Jewish.

Ivan Ceresnjes summarized it by saying: “In the communist view the suffering of one group of citizens under Nazi Germany and its allies could not be separated from that of others. People were told that all citizens had suffered from both external and internal enemies.”11

Shafir explains that there were two different methods of de-Judaization: “Except for the very first postwar years, Soviet historiography and its imposed model strove to both ‘nationalize’ and ‘internationalize’ the Holocaust. ‘Nationalization’ amounted to transforming Jewish victims into local victims. ‘Internationalization’ derived from those regimes’ ideologically determined ‘definition’ of ‘Fascism.’”12

Shafir referred to Babi Yar, one of the most notorious places for the murder of Jews in the Ukraine.

Thanks to Evgenii Yevtushenko, the case of Babi Yar, where Soviet authorities constantly sought to blur the record of the victims’ Jewish identity, acquired world notoriety. When in 1961 Yevtushenko bewailed the fact that “no monument stands over Babi Yar,” little did he know that “no monument” was better than “any monument.” The one finally erected on the site of the massacre in 1976 specified that the Germans had executed there “over 100,000 citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war.” It bears no trace of specific Jewish suffering.13

The Anne Frank Story

A major example of the de-Judaization of the Holocaust is how the Anne Frank story has been presented over the decades. She gradually became a major icon of Holocaust remembrance and her de-Judaization process covers a long period. A book titled Anne Frank: For Beginners and Advanced, by the Dutch political scientist David Barnouw, focuses on postwar developments and gives many examples of this de-Judaization.14

After the Frank family and others in hiding with them were arrested on 4 August 1944, Miep Gies, who had helped them, found Anne’s diaries. In August 1945, she gave them to Anne’s father Otto, the family’s sole survivor. It would take two years until they were published, after several publishers had rejected the manuscript.15

Several of the initial reviews in Dutch papers made no mention of the fact that Anne was Jewish, nor of the persecution of the Jews.16 Three years later a German edition was published, the foreword of which was written by the German author Albrecht Goes.17 Here also there was no explicit reference to the suffering of the Jews and only one mention of the word Israel (used as a substitute for “the Jewish people”).

In 1952, an English translation titled Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was published for the American market. The foreword was written by Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the wartime president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In this text, the terms Jew or “persecution” of Jews were not mentioned. Later the playwright Meyer Levin wrote a script for a play based on the book, but it was rejected by many producers.18

A new script was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and the play premiered in 1955 in New York. Barnouw writes, “Of course the adaptation of a book or in this case a diary [to a stage play], cannot be totally true to the original. But the fact that there was a Hitler and national socialism as well as anti-Semitism, and that Anne was persecuted as a Jewish girl has been pushed to the background.”19

Meanwhile Levin had brought a court case against Otto Frank and Kermet Bloomgarden, the producer of the play. He also published articles and pamphlets on the subject. In one of them he wrote that there were two ways to exterminate Jewish life: one was physical as the Nazis had done; the second was by the disappearance or extermination of Jewish culture. He claimed that the rejection of his play was an example of an attempt at the latter.20

The Play Determined Anne’s Image

The perception of Anne Frank in the United States developed in the context of how the Holocaust is viewed in that country. Alvin Rosenfeld explains: “In the Americanized narration of the Holocaust, there is a tendency to downplay the dark and brutal aspects of the genocide, and instead focus on acts of moral or physical courage that lead to redemption. The Holocaust is thereby fit into the greater American narrative of the individual’s ability to change his destiny and create a better future for himself.”21 Such an attitude structurally incentivizes the abuse of Holocaust memory.

The historian Tim Cole observes: “the contemporary lesson of tolerance demands that Anne’s words be rewritten to include members of ‘this or that minority’ and yet that makes a mockery of the historical reality.” He adds: “Given its mythical status, the ‘Holocaust’ risks becoming a popular past used to serve all sorts of present needs. In particular, the needs of contemporary liberalism tends to latch onto a powerful tale in the past and universalize it so as to produce a set of universal lessons.” Cole attacks this liberalism, concluding: “If there is one lesson that can be drawn from the Holocaust it is precisely that the optimism of Anne Frank was woefully misplaced.”22

Barnouw concludes that the play, even more than the book, has determined the image of Anne Frank for the public at large. She is a happy girl who falls in love and sometimes has deep thoughts. “Anne Frank is by now more a symbol of the universal suffering of man than ‘the voice of six million vanished [Jewish] souls.’”23 In 1997, the play was revised and again performed. It is now re-Judaized, a Chanukah song is sung in Hebrew, and one of the other people in hiding appears in one scene wearing a talit (prayer shawl).24 For Barnouw this indicates that to be Jewish had become politically correct in the 1990s.25

The experience of Dutch film director Willy Lindwer suggests that the management of the Anne Frank House also intentionally presented only a partial picture. When he approached the director of the Anne Frank Foundation in the mid-1980s for help on his movie on the last seven months of Anne’s life in a concentration camp, he was rebuffed. Lindwer was not even allowed to film inside the house. The director made comments along the lines of: “Anne Frank is a symbol. Symbols should not be shown to die in a concentration camp.” Undeterred, Lindwer went on to make his movie The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank, for which he received the 1998 International EMMY award for best documentary.26

The Dutch Myth

 Fishman summed up another aspect of distortion:

What makes The Diary of Anne Frank special from a historical point of view is that — for at least two generations — it helped form the views of millions of readers, movie audiences and theater goers. The Diary has become one of the main sources for propagating the optimistic and positive image of the Netherlands as a country which had “done the right thing” — rising en masse against the German oppressor and hiding their fellow Jewish citizens at risk to their lives.

In Holland, if Anne Frank’s teenage view of the outside world was primarily limited to cramped quarters, the reality which she could not have known was far more complicated. Some scholars are now coming to recognize contradictions in the historical record in Holland. Yet for reasons of expedience, at best, these contradictions have rarely, if ever, been publicly challenged by those with the responsibility to do so.27

Journalist Elma Verhey deflated part of the Dutch Holocaust myth:

Holland did not join the resistance in massive numbers, as Anne suggested in her diary. Actually, very few extended a helping hand when their Jewish neighbors or colleagues were deported. Indeed, the Netherlands holds the record for the highest percentage of victims of all the occupied countries of Western Europe. Dutch civil servants supplied Jewish addresses, Dutch policemen forcibly removed them from their homes. Dutch tram conductors transported them to the train stations, and the Dutch Railways sent itemized invoices to the Nazi headquarters for adding extra trains to the Westerbork transit camp.… Without the cooperation of the Dutch civil service and its bureaucracy, the extermination of more than one hundred thousand Jews — some eighty percent of all Jews who lived in Holland before the war — could not have been possible.28

Verhey also discusses the role of the Anne Frank Foundation:

Not all Dutchmen find it fitting that the Anne Frank House has developed into one of the most important tourist attractions of Amsterdam. Many Dutch Jews avoid the Anne Frank House because of some of the myths created by her diary. Moreover, there has been concern that the Foundation has in the past paid more attention to a handful of neo-Nazis in Germany, as well as focused more on the plight of the Palestinians, than on the state-sponsored anti-Semitism of the former Soviet Union.29

Pope John Paul II at Auschwitz

There are many other examples of de-Judaization as well. Pope John Paul II partly “nationalized” the Jewish suffering in 1979 during his visit to Auschwitz. He said: “There are six million Poles who lost their lives during the Second World War: the fifth part of the nation.”

Minerbi analyzed this: “In this way the Jews, who were not considered part of the Polish nation while they lived, are assimilated to it after their death. More important, this is yet another instance of the appropriation of Jewish symbols by the Church, which goes back many centuries.”30

After the fall of communism, Jewish victims were gradually memorialized specifically. Yet, at the same time, the de-Judaization from the communist days continued.

A French Example

In the Western world, de-Judaizing the victims of the Holocaust is usually done in an indirect manner. One example is given by Trigano:

A comment from Jean Matteoli, head of the committee charged with probing the fate of Jewish property stolen in France, indicated how profoundly anti- Semitic ideas have permeated French society. In an interview with the Swiss paper Le Temps in March 1999, he said: “The French Jews are Jews, but they are also French. To make a distinction for comparable damages between French Jews and French Catholics, or whoever, creates a very facetious precedent of which the Jews could finally become victims themselves. In France there is no difference between Jews and non-Jews…. It is the Germans who have made this distinction….”

The construct of Matteoli, a member  of  the  Resistance  himself,  is that, while French Jews were killed by the Germans for belonging to the Jewish people French citizens died there as anonymous individuals. In other words, the French Republic cannot accept the evident reality of Jews having died as such during the Holocaust. Only Frenchmen were supposed to die, not Jews. Even if killed by the Nazis because they were Jews, deprived of their citizenship, they must still be considered only as French citizens.31


  1. Steven Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, V 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), as quoted in David Patterson, Emil L. Fackenheim: A Jewish Philosopher’s Response to the Holocaust (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 92.
  2. Alex Grobman, “The Uniqueness of the Holocaust,” in Alex Grobman and Joel Fishman, Anne Frank in Historical Perspective: A Teaching Guide for Secondary Schools (Los Angeles: Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, 1995), 7.
  3. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Denial of the Holocaust and Immoral Equivalence,” an interview with Deborah Lipstadt, Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 11, 1 August 2003.
  4. Yehuda Bauer, “Reviewing the Holocaust Anew in Multiple Contexts,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 80, 1 May 2009.
  5. Ibid.
  6. One could add that not all Armenians in the Turkish Empire were For instance, those in Jerusalem were not.
  7. Emil Fackenheim, “Holocaust,” in Michael Morgan, ed., A Holocaust Reader: Responses to the Nazi Extermination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), as quoted in Patterson, Emil L. Fackenheim, 93.
  8. Patterson, Emil Fackenheim, 93.
  9. Michael Shafir, “Between Denial and ‘Comparative Trivialization’: Holocaust Negationism in Post-Communist East Central Europe,” ACTA, 19 (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2001),
  10. Richard Plant, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War against Homosexuals (New York: Henry Holt, 1986), 54–69. See also:
  1. See the interview with Ivan Ceresnjes in this volume.
  2. Michael Shafir, “Holocaust Denial, the Legacy of Communism, and ‘Transition,’” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, East European Perspectives, V 4, No. 6, 20 March 2002.
  3. Ibid., citing William Korey, “Anti-Semitism and the Treatment of the Holocaust in the USSR/CIS,” in R. L. Braham, ed., Anti-Semitism and the Treatment of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Eastern Europe (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 210– 212.
  4. David Barnouw, Anne Frank: voor beginners en gevorderden (Den Haag: Sdu, 1998). [Dutch]
  5. Ibid., 14–19.
  6. Ibid., 20.
  7. Ibid., 21. 18.
  8. Ibid., 23–26.
  9. Ibid., 30. 20.
  10. Ibid., 34–35.
  11. Alvin Rosenfeld, “The Americanization of the Holocaust,” in Alvin H. Rosenfeld, ed., Thinking about the Holocaust after Half a Century (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), 123.
  12. Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust (New York: Routledge, 2000), 42.
  13. Barnouw, Anne Frank, 37.
  14. Ibid., 38.
  15. Ibid., 38.
  16. Personal communication, Willy Lindwer.
  17. Grobman and Fishman, Anne Frank, 2
  18. Elma Verhey, “Anne Frank and the Dutch Myth,” in , 24.
  19. Ibid., 23–24.
  20. Sergio Minerbi, “Pope John Paul II and the Jews: An Evaluation,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 18, Nos. 1–2 (Spring 2006).
  21. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “France: Memory versus Truth,” an interview with Shmuel Trigano, in Europe’s Crumbling Myths (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2003).

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