Writing Jews Out of History: The Sounds of Silence

How does one commemorate the Holocaust and fail to mention the major group that was singled out for obliteration?
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Last Friday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. A British associate of mine sent me the link to Archbishop Rowan Williams' message, which was distributed to honor that occasion. Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is Primate of All England and spokesperson for the worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church. He is a man of extraordinary good will and an advocate for religious diversity. And yet, he managed to get through almost his entire speech without mentioning the word "Jew." This is astounding! How does one commemorate the Holocaust and fail to mention the major group that was singled out for obliteration?

The Archbishop's message focused on a powerful theme: the need to speak up for the "stranger" and the "neighbor" and to turn "strangers" into "neighbors." But, in many of the countries in which they were murdered, Jews were not "strangers." They were "neighbors" -- fully assimilated Germans, Poles, French, Dutch, Greeks, Scandinavians.

The only group Archbishop Williams singled out in his remarks was survivors of contemporary genocides whom he encountered on a recent visit to the Congo. All the horrific genocides that followed the Holocaust must be acknowledged. But on Holocaust Remembrance Day, this doesn't justify omitting any reference to the Holocaust against the Jews. (It was not until the end of Archbishop Williams' remarks that Jews were mentioned, and that was only in an oblique reference to the good work of the Council of Christians and Jews in the U.K.)

Archbishop Rowan's omission is only the most recent in a worrisome trend. In Rostov-on-Don in Russia, a new Holocaust memorial plaque fails to mention Jews. In Poland, the Gorodische Holocaust memorial makes no mention of Jews. Yet, it was in the notorious concentration camps of that country -- Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka -- that most of the 6 million murdered Jews were systematically wiped out during the Holocaust. Ironically, when Auschwitz was first turned into a museum in 1947, there was no mention of Jews in the official decree. It simply stated: "On the site of the former Nazi concentration camp, a monument to the martyrdom of the Polish nation and of other nations is to be erected for all time to come."

In explaining the impact of this trend, it wasn't a scholar or Holocaust memoirist who made one of the most eloquent statements that I've seen. It was Polin Travel, a guided tour and genealogy company. "The striking thing is that when you visit those places today, almost nothing is visible of those camps' former existence. The German crime was not only the murder of those people, but also the eradication of the memory of their very existence and the manner in which they were killed. This was meant to be the perfect crime, and its cover-up took a tremendous effort."

This poignant observation applies equally to Archbishop Williams' well-meaning statement. Such omissions make us complicit in the eradication of memory.

Failing to acknowledge the unique targeting of the Jews in the Holocaust effectively does what the Nazis failed to do. It eradicates the Jews by writing them out of history. This seems to reflect a new form of political correctness. In the interest of "inclusivity," we create equivalence between the Holocaust against the Jews and the wide net in which Hitler snared so many other victims.

Holocaust denial runs along a continuum. At one end are the mad rantings of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who, contrary to vast troves of historical evidence, denies that the Holocaust occurred at all. At the other end are the well-meaning people who acknowledge that something terrible happened, but gloss over the primary target of that evil -- the Jews. This end of the continuum is, in some ways, more insidious than the extreme position of our Iranian nemesis, because it seems so benign and egalitarian.

The world stood silent when 6 million Jews were annihilated. In his Holocaust Memorial Day remarks, Archbishop Williams speaks movingly about the need to speak up. But by omitting any mention of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, we are once again committing the sin of silence.

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