Holocaust should not be for sale
Holocaust Memorial Day will only further debase the suffering
and the memories of those who survived the Nazis.
As someone whose family was virtually wiped out in Nazi concentration
camps and forced labour battalions, I become furious when I read
that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismisses the Holocaust
as a myth. I cannot forget my mother's heart-wrenching account of
how she was compelled to leave her younger sister to die in a ditch
as two SS camp guards forced her to march on during the last week
of the war in Germany.
Sometimes, it is the less tragic, almost banal, events that prey
on the imagination. In late 1944, my elder sister was caught by
a group of Nazis near the Budapest ghetto, who decided to have some
fun with her by slapping her around, before finally kicking her
in the backside. Perversely, my sister was most offended by the
jeering remarks these thugs made about her "Jewish squint".
Her humiliation is something that I still feel with a surprising
degree of intensity. I can really understand her continual determination
to demonstrate that she mattered - a character trait that stayed
with her throughout her life.
I was made to feel lucky that I did not have to live through those
desperate years. Growing up in a very, very small family, I was
always conscious of missing grandparents, aunts and uncles. Sometimes
an ominous silence or a nervous glance around the dinner table signalled
the suspicion that bad things could happen in the future. And I
still remember how my father exploded with outrage when he heard
a group of scornful Hungarian anti-Semites claim that after the
war, more Jews came back than went to the camps. Remembering was
important to him, as it is to me.
So why I do I feel so uncomfortable with the institutionalisation
of Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain? Is it because the Holocaust
has been turned into a bite-size moral morsel to be hawked around
by dodgy peddlers of virtue? Or because the Holocaust has become
the most overused metaphor, adopted by moral entrepreneurs to promote
a bewildering variety of causes? I suspect that it is because remembering
the Holocaust has become an official ritual that allows every sanctimonious
politician and public figure to put their superior moral virtues
on public display.
Preaching about the horrors of the Holocaust helps society avoid
working out its own moral view of the world. Its transformation
into a universal symbol of evil has helped promote the simplistic
moral formula: to be against it is good and to be for it is bad.
That is why the Holocaust can play such a prominent role in the
The incessant demand that we "learn the lessons of the Holocaust"
has little to do with a genuine act of grieving or remembering.
Nor does it have much to do with encouraging people to scrutinise
the past in order to learn from it. Usually, it means appropriating
the label Holocaust to attack any target we choose. Thus, everything
from the erosion of bio-diversity to a loss of jobs can be denounced
as a "Holocaust". It has become an all-purpose claim for
sympathy and moral authority, a platitude trotted out in the most
When Germaine Greer bailed out of Celebrity Big Brother last year,
she denounced her housemates for refusing to support her defiance
of the "fascist" bullying of Big Brother. "Holocaust
is what happens," she lectured, "when good people do nothing."
After reading Greer's pious justification of her behaviour, I recalled
my father's warning that the "Holocaust should not be for sale".
He believed that if the Holocaust was transformed into a universal
symbol of evil, remembering it would turn into an empty ritual to
be used for self-serving ends. He would not have been surprised
by recent claims that the British bombing of Dresden constituted
a "German Holocaust". Nor would he be shocked to hear
animal rights activists refer to a Holocaust of seals in Canada.
Once the Holocaust has been turned into an all-purpose claim for
sympathy, it is bound to become a commodity in the moral market
The more that the terrible experience of the Nazi era has become
institutionalised through Holocaust Days, Holocaust memorials and
museums, Holocaust curricula and Holocaust films, the more it has
become a focus of competitive claims making. Is it any surprise
its emotional power has been co-opted and transferred to other events,
such as the African-American Holocaust, the Serbian Holocaust, the
Bosnian Holocaust or the Rwandan Holocaust. Predictably, everyone
wants a piece of the action.
Instead of serving as a focus of unity, Holocaust Day merely encourages
different groups to develop an inflated sense of past suffering
and to demand public recognition for it. It encourages different
cultural groups to represent themselves as victims of historical
injustices. Such a response is not surprising, since it is difficult
for a single experience of barbaric violence to serve as a universal
symbol of suffering. It is one thing to recognise the scale of destruction
and the unique dimension of the Holocaust. It is quite another to
turn it into a moral tale that can inspire all people at all times.
If Holocaust Day was just another meaningless ritual, I would not
be worried about it. But such initiatives actually help create an
environment that encourages cynicism and scepticism about what actually
happened during the Nazi era.
False morality always incites the response of cynicism, and Holocaust-mongering
is no exception. Last year a poll conducted in nine European countries
by the IPSO research institute indicated that 35 per cent of those
interviewed stated that Jews should stop playing the role of Holocaust
victims. And in a survey carried out in Britain by ICM, 15 per cent
of those polled said they thought that the scale of the Holocaust
has been exaggerated. At present, this mood of scepticism is still
unformed. But the obsessive institutionalisation of the cult of
the Holocaust will create a situation where scepticism will invite
When memory becomes politicised, get ready for trouble. Remembering
suffering is best pursued through the genuine sentiments of people
who were touched by the experience of the Holocaust. But now, even
they feel alienated by the way it is portrayed as a universal icon
of suffering that does not resonate with their memories.
Probably the single decisive event that alerted me to this was
a conversation I had 15 years ago with my 89-year-old mother. After
watching a television programme about "Holocaust victims",
she appeared puzzled by the terminology. She said she did not realise
she was a "victim", and that she did not perceive her
identity in terms of victimhood. But what really upset her was the
implication that she must be peculiar because, unlike the people
in the programme, her entire life has not been defined by the events
of the Forties.
"Maybe there is something wrong with me," she said. Some
therapists would concur and say she is a sick woman in denial. But
to me she demonstrates an admirable human capacity to overcome adversity.
And for that we do not need government-sponsored rituals.
published in the Daily Telegraph, 23 January 2006