Opinion: Holocaust denial and distortion in COVID-19 era fuelling antisemitism

Jan 26 2022, 5:00 pm

Editor’s Note: This post may contain images and descriptions that may be triggering for some readers.

Written for Daily Hive by Nina Krieger; Executive Director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and Nico Slobinsky; Senior Director, Pacific Region, at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs

When Robbie Waisman learned that Alberta teacher James Keegstra was engaging in Holocaust denial in the early 1980s, he recalled a memory from decades earlier, when he was 13 years old in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

One night, Waisman remembers, while trying to fall asleep in the crowded barracks, a voice called out to him in the dark, ‘Hey kid, if this is over and you survive, remember to tell the world what you have witnessed.’

Waisman didn’t answer.

The voice spoke again. In response, a second voice admonished the first saying, ‘Leave the kid alone. Let’s all go to sleep. None of us are going to survive.’

Again: ‘Hey kid, I haven’t heard you promise.’

Recalls Waisman, “I wanted him to leave me alone, so I said, ‘OK, I promise.’”

By the end of the Second World War, 56,000 would be murdered in Buchenwald, through work, torture, beatings, starvation, and consumption.

buchenwald holocaust

Roll call at Buchenwald concentration camp, ca.1938-1941/Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Learning from the experiences of Holocaust survivors

Like many Holocaust survivors, Waisman tried to put his wartime experiences behind him and rebuild his life following the near-total destruction of European Jewry, which included the murder of his entire family.

Waisman broke his silence in the 1970s and ’80s in the face of growing Holocaust denial. Since co-founding the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and volunteering as an outreach speaker, Waisman has shared his eyewitness account with tens of thousands of students across Canada, often joining with members of other communities devastated by genocide.

Although recounting his traumatic experiences takes its toll, Waisman’s commitment to Holocaust education is rooted in optimism and the conviction that his testimony will inspire young people to stand against hatred. Waisman has received countless letters about how his story has transformed the lives of young students, sometimes prompting them to dedicate themselves to social justice.

Yet, as Robbie Waisman and other survivors enter their 90s, their optimism is being tested. Antisemitism is rising around the world, fueled by increasing Holocaust denial and distortion. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is on January 27, and it has never been more important for us to honour and remember this dark chapter of human history and push back against Holocaust denial and Holocaust distortion, which has emerged as a growing phenomenon, warping public discourse, and eroding the public understanding of historical facts.

The problem of Holocaust distortion

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) defines Holocaust distortion as actions or statements that seek to minimize, misrepresent, or excuse the Holocaust. Online or offline, Holocaust distortion is a pernicious form of antisemitism, found in conspiracy theories, hate speech, and the distrust of democratic institutions, all exacerbated during the pandemic.

Opponents of COVID-19 public health policies compare their governments to the Nazi regime and their grievances to the suffering of victims of the Holocaust. These comparisons are false, outrageous, and deeply offensive to Holocaust survivors and their descendants – and should be of concern to all who stand with them in support of the truth.

In December, protestors at the BC legislature hung effigies in an attempt to draw a parallel between Nazi war criminals who conducted medical experiments on Jews and local politicians who mandated proof of vaccination. In many cities, people have protested COVID-19 vaccines wearing yellow stars, suggesting that the Nazi edict that Jews wear a yellow star during the Holocaust is equivalent to requiring proof of vaccination during a pandemic.

These assaults on the memory of the most well-documented genocide in history should raise alarms for all members of our diverse, democratic society.

What we can do

To combat modern-day hatred – not only against Jews but against all Canadian minorities – we must safeguard memory and fact. Canadians, who are confronting the terrible history of residential schools, must be sensitive to the importance of preserving evidence of past crimes, remembering every victim, honouring survivors, and creating meaningful opportunities for learning and remembrance. All are essential for moving forward (not moving beyond; the Holocaust demonstrates the intergenerational legacies of such traumas).

What can be done to combat this critical threat to Holocaust memory? Canada could follow other European democracies like Germany and France and criminalize Holocaust denial. We must develop programs and resources to empower policymakers, educators, civil servants, and journalists to address and prevent Holocaust distortion. From the classroom to the newsroom, we must protect historical facts. IHRA’s toolkit on Holocaust distortion offers practical guidance, empowering ambassadors for truth and change in their institutions, governments, and communities.

This January 27, all citizens can participate in commemorative programs in communities across Canada. Many of the programs will feature Holocaust survivors like Robbie Waisman, who share their testimonies in the hope that we will carry the truth of the Holocaust forward to the next generation.

This truth and the lessons it offers about the fragility of democracy and the responsibility of all citizens to stand up to hate are more relevant today than ever.

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