Holocaust Memorial Day is not just for the Jews

Holocaust Memorial at California Palace of the Legion of Honor. By Eugene Eric Kim. Used under the Creative Commons licence.

In a recent Facebook post of an acquaintance I was accused of antisemitism and racism for expressing my disapproval of the way in which the Holocaust — and with it Holocaust Memorial Day — has been claimed by the Jewish community to the exclusion of the other victims. I also voiced my displeasure at the way the state of Israel uses the Holocaust to justify aggression against their neighbours, in particular the Palestinians. I was particularly vilified for stating that I am as equally offended by such Holocaust exploiters as I am by Holocaust deniers.

So who were the other victims? The Nazis targeted Poles, Communists (i.e., Soviet citizens), Ukrainians, Serbs, the mentally and/or physically disabled, homosexuals, the Roma, black Africans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Freemasons, Slovenes, Spanish Republicans, and even those whose only crime was to speak Esperanto. Many of these groups overlap, but collectively approximately 17 million people were killed by the Nazis, of which 5–6 million were Jewish. By comparison, the Soviets lost almost 8 million people.

But in what ways do we see an exclusionary practice in action? Well, as one example, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in its “Introduction to the Holocaust,” defines the Holocaust as “the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.” Their website discusses many of the other victims (some in detail), but these others do not form part of the definition. In the recent address to the U.N. by the museum’s director, Sara Bloomfield, she only spoke of antisemitism and the persecution of the Jews. Everyone else failed to even get a mention.*

Similarly, the Holocaust memorial in Berlin is called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial came under fire — most vocally by the LGBTQ and Roma communities — for ignoring all other victims. Instead of reworking (and renaming) the memorial to include the others, the response instead was to give those outspoken gays and Roma their own, separate, memorials elsewhere.

Meanwhile here at home, Canada’s National Holocaust Monument “commemorates the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust and the millions of other victims of Nazi-era Germany and its collaborators.” Once again all others are grouped together into one amorphous, faceless mass.

Let me be clear: Holocaust Memorial Day must be about ALL victims of the Holocaust.

By focusing on the Jews and failing to identify or acknowledge the other victims, the persecution of these other groups/subcultures was allowed to continue for decades after the war, unfettered by what would have otherwise been unsettling comparisons to the Nazis. Some groups continue to be persecuted to this day. Here are just a few examples of what went on, or continues to:

#1: After the war, the Nazi persecution of homosexuals was not discussed by the Allied Powers, who also discriminated against homosexuals. After the Allies freed German homosexuals from the prisons and concentration camps, the post-war German government rearrested them using evidence first gathered by the Nazis. It was not until 2002 that Germany apologized to the gay community. It was not until 2005 that homosexuals were included in the U.N.’s official declaration on the Holocaust. It was not until 2014 that Israel built a memorial to gay victims. To date, over 60 countries still outlaw homosexuality, of which 10 carry the death penalty.

#2: In Canada and the U.S., compulsory sterilization programs that began circa 1907–1930 continued despite the eugenics origins of the Holocaust (the U.S. programs were in fact an inspiration for Hitler). Canada’s program — which primarily targeted impoverished women and First Nations women — continued until 1972. In the U.S., a post-war backlash forced the programs to operate more quietly, but they, too, did not cease operations. To avoid comparison to the Nazis, the state of Oregon, for example, simply changed the name of their department from the Oregon Board of Eugenics to the Board of Social Protection. It continued to sterilize “undesirables” until 1981.

#3: The persecution of the Roma, state sponsored first in 1538 in Moravia and Bohemia, continued throughout Europe after WWII. In 2018, Britain’s Guardian newspaper wrote of this continued disgrace, calling the Roma “one of the few peoples whose demonisation and persecution is accepted in polite society.” When a 1997 Czech documentary about Roma refugees being welcomed in Canada resulted in an influx of Czech-born Romas to our country, we responded by reintroducing visa requirements for Czech citizens.

#4: At the aforementioned United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is displayed the famous “First they came…” poem by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, an outspoken critic of Hitler. However, due to America’s unfortunate and embarrassing history of persecuting Communists, the museum changed the first line from “First they came for the Communists” to “First they came for the socialists.” This sleight of hand spares the millions of American visitors to the museum the uncomfortable alignment of themselves with the Nazis.

And this is simply my point: we are all guilty of hate crimes, we all have a history of genocide and other despicable acts, and we must address them equally.

By limiting our understanding of the Holocaust as an assault against Jews, we give ourselves licence to continue hating everyone else while avoiding the heavy moniker of Nazi. And that just annoys me no end.

*[UPDATE, Jan 31]: While discussing this with a friend, she pointed out that the American Jewish community raised the money and paid for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, so why shouldn’t it be mostly about them? My response is this: Because it isn’t named the United States Jewish Holocaust Memorial Museum. By naming it as they did, they took ownership of the Holocaust. If you look at similar memorials dedicated to, for example, homosexuals and the Roma, they are named as such, for example Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism (in Berlin), or the Roma Holocaust Memorial (in Budapest).

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