General awareness of the Holocaust is undoubtedly greater today than at any time since World War II. The myriad museums and memorials, educational programs, cultural events and official remembrances have seen to that. In the face of such abundant evidence, denial of the Holocaust is manifestly the province of the pathologically anti-Semitic.
However, the very ubiquity of Holocaust remembrance and the ghastly images and symbols of Nazism it puts before the public has had results that, if not as odious as denial, are nevertheless offensive in their own ways.
Western society has succeeded in making the Holocaust a part of historical consciousness. Everybody knows about it. But knowledge does not guarantee understanding and proper use. It was almost inevitable that, along with solemn memorial and serious scholarship, it would be subject to distortion and trivialization.
The latest such ignominy comes to us from the Belgian city of Aalst, where people dressed up as Nazi SS officers holding canisters of Zyklon-B gas participated Sunday in a parade satirizing the nationalist N-VA Party, whose long-range goal is an independent Flemish republic. One of the organizers reportedly stated that “this is our deportation wagon and we are going to deport anything French.”
While this mockery of Flemish nationalism is unlikely to deter the party’s rising popularity (N-VA won major victories in last October’s municipal elections, including Antwerp), it did hit a very different target.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center vigorously protested the display. Center officials sent a letter to Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo urging him “to investigate the circumstances and stop this abomination,” suggesting that “the very idea be presented to Belgian youth — both French- and Flemish-speaking — as a case study of genocide banalization.”
The organizers of the parade may have intended only to fight what they view as a dangerous xenophobia, not to harm Jewish sensibilities. But that they could have chosen this way to express themselves indicates that while the symbols of the Holocaust have become familiar to the average European, the meaning of it has not penetrated the heart.
The crimes against the Six Million remain largely an abstraction, part of the vast trove of memorabilia from a European past rich in persecutions, expulsions and mass murder from which political activists, artists and others can draw as they wish without much concern for the feelings of the actual victims — even when some are still living.
It is of a piece with other trivializations of the Holocaust, in which various groups have expropriated it in order to dramatize this or that cause. Thus, we have seen Al Gore warning of “an ecological Kristallnacht,” in which one of the early Nazi atrocities was invoked to lend more heft to his campaign to save the environment.
Then there’s “the tobacco holocaust.” Smoking is indisputably a serious health problem, the cause of many deaths, but it is hardly to be compared to the systematic murder of European Jewry.
Allegations of genocide against various peoples — among them the Armenians, the American Indians, the Cambodians, the Cubans, the Palestinians — have proliferated. Each one attempts to attract attention and support by comparison to the victims of Nazism, the readily available metaphor for all suffering on a large scale.
Elie Wiesel said it well: “I cannot use [the word Holocaust] anymore. First, because there are no words, and also because it has become so trivialized that I cannot use it anymore. Whatever mishap occurs now, they call it ‘holocaust.’ I have seen it myself in the country in which I live. A commentator describing the defeat of a sports team, somewhere, called it a holocaust. I have read in a very prestigious newspaper published in California a description of the murder of six people, and the author called it a holocaust. So, I have no words anymore.”
Yet, we must continue to fight these denials and distortions of the Holocaust, and words are the main weapon. Indeed, Wiesel himself has not given up speaking and writing about the Holocaust.
And sometimes the protests have an effect.
One of the most egregious trivializations of the Holocaust was perpetrated by PETA, the animal rights organization, which compared the slaughter of animals to the Holocaust.
However, to her credit it must be said that PETA founder and director Ingrid Newkirk later apologized. She wrote that she had “misconceptions about what impact [of such an approach] would be …we know that we have caused pain. This was never our intention, and we are deeply sorry.”
We hope that the organizers of the parade in Aalst will also come to realize that whatever the legitimacy of their cause, the improper use of the Holocaust detracts from it — and causes pain.