The Holocaust: Denial and Memory

By Bennett, Barry | The Humanist, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

The Holocaust: Denial and Memory


Bennett, Barry, The Humanist


They caught Eichmann."

My mother flew into the kitchen, hissing an epithet through tight lips--a mixed curse and hosanna that reverberated against the knotty Dine walls. I was sitting at the kitchen table with our neighbor and my mother's best friend Audrey, who gasped in response. The Israeli government had just announced that twelve days earlier it had captured Adolf Eichmann, overseer of the Final Solution, who had been hiding in Argentina since the end of World War II. It was May 23, 1960. I was seven years old.

These three words were my introduction to the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler's almost successful plan to murder all the Jews in Europe. Although I did not understand them, their combined vitriol and triumph have seared my memory like a brand. My mother died in 1973, before the onslaught of Holocaust revisionism, which denies the existence of the death camps and attributes the memory of the Holocaust to yet another Jewish conspiracy. Although she never heard the revisionist claims, I do not have to wonder what her reaction would have been.

I don't remember our visits to the Katz's. My brother, three years older, told me about them many years later. I was five and six when we would drive from Long Island into Brooklyn and visit Stanley Katz's parents. As a teenager in Brooklyn, my mother had met Stanley, whom she wed in 1940 when she was twenty. In 1942, Stanley went to war. His platoon was captured by the Germans and held in a prisoner of war camp. After the war, most of the platoon returned to their families. But Stanley was given away, either by his name or by the H for Hebrew that the army stamped on the dog tags of Jews so that the appropriate chaplain would attend killed or wounded soldiers. Because Stanley was a Jew, the Nazis killed him, and my mother was a widow at twenty three. In 1947, she married my father, and I followed in 1953, given bloodstained life through another's death, born of atrocity, beneficiary of Nazi hatred.

My generation, born during the post war boom, did not greet the war's survivors nor mourn its victims; we did not recoil at the news of the camps nor rejoice in their liberation. To our parents' generation, the Holocaust was real and immediate: it was real to my mother, who lost her husband and it was real to Naum Wortman, father of my childhood friend Marcel and survivor of Auschwitz, whose right arm bears the camp's scarred reminder, the inmate number the Nazis burned into it as a rancher brands cattle. But generations pass and scars fade, and even truth has been known to become legend. In a 1993 Roper poll, one third of adults agreed it was possible that the Holocaust never happened. Twenty eight percent of adults and 39 percent of high school students didn't know what the term Holocaust referred to; 50 percent of high school students couldn't identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp.

Since that poll, knowledge about the Holocaust has advanced little, while, according to one revisionist, revisionism "is springing up all over" The innocuously and deceptively named Journal of Historical Review continues to publish, in its words, "historical material from the Second World War onward, with an emphasis on revisionist viewpoints, especially of the `Holocaust.'" The revisionists refuse to dignify even the very word; framed by quotation marks, it paints a fictional picture. A recent biography of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's chief propagandist, argues that the Holocaust, to the extent it occurred at all, cannot be traced to Hitler. No written command exists ordering the extermination of the Jews; hence, there were no Hitler inspired deaths.

But revisionism has found its most congenial home where all rhetoric flows free: the Internet. A furor has erupted recently over the Worldwide Web page of Arthur Butz, a Northwestern University engineering professor. He uses his home page--part of Northwestern's Internet site--to broadcast his view that, as his 1976 book proclaims, the Holocaust is the "hoax of the twentieth century.

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