by Rafael Medoff
On Friday, January 27, the United Nations will commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the Soviet army’s liberation of Auschwitz. As the largest and most notorious of the Nazi death camps, Auschwitz has come to symbolize the Holocaust itself. Unfortunately, it is a symbol that is also frequently distorted, misrepresented, or exploited for narrow political purposes.
Here are five of the most common misrepresentations of Auschwitz:
1. “Jews Weren’t the Only Victims in Auschwitz.”
Many Soviet POWs and political prisoners were killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz, but the overwhelming majority of the victims were Jews, because the Jews were the only group singled out by the Germans for total annihilation. Nevertheless, the Soviet authorities after World War II did their best to obscure the Jewishness of the approximately 1.5-million Jews who were gassed in Auschwitz. One of the most infamous examples was the inscription on the memorial that the Soviets built to the Jews who were slaughtered by the Nazis at Babi Yar: “Here in 1941-1943, the German fascist invaders executed more than 100,000 citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war.”
The current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, followed in the Soviets’ footsteps when he gave a speech at the Auschwitz site a few years ago in which he spoke about the Soviet soldiers who died while liberating Poland, and the millions of Russians killed in World War II–but did not mention the Jews.
2. “The Jews Themselves Didn’t Want to Bomb Auschwitz.”
Early in 1944, David Ben-Gurion and some other Zionist leaders thought Auschwitz was a forced-labor camp, and therefore opposed asking the Allies to bomb it. A few weeks later, they learned it was a death camp and reversed their position. Nevertheless, ardent defenders of President Franklin Roosevelt have tried to deflect attention from FDR’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz by arguing that Jewish leaders such as Ben-Gurion themselves were against bombing it.
That claim has now been put firmly to rest by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which last week, after a two year study, concluded that Ben-Gurion did indeed reverse himself and support bombing. It is the Allied leadership, not the Jewish leadership, that deserves the blame for the failure to bomb the death camp–especially when Allied planes were already flying over the death camp, striking oil factories next door to Auschwitz.
3. “We Have Our Auschwitz, Too.”
Some aggrieved interest groups seem to believe they can score points by claiming that their cause, plight, or suffering is comparable in some way to Auschwitz. Animal rights activists in Wisconsin have sought support for a new center against animal experimentation by comparing it to “the Holocaust Memorial at the Gates of Auschwitz.” Anti-abortion militants have compared abortion clinics to Auschwitz. Some opponents of detaining terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay think that prison is similar to Auschwitz. The list goes on.
4. “The Other Guy’s Policies Are Like Auschwitz.”
Invoking Auschwitz sometimes becomes a convenient way to smear one’s political opponents. Dismayed by the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, “Air America” radio show host Randi Rhodes compared the evacuation of hurricane victims to the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. The Anti-Defamation League called her analogy “a perversion of morality and history.”
5. “Israel is guilty of perpetrating a new Auschwitz.”
Despite the obvious absurdity of the charge, Arab extremists often accuse Israel of treating the Arabs of Gaza in a manner similar to the treatment of Jews in Auschwitz. A columnist for the Saudi newspaper ar-Riyad, annoyed at a previous year’s commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz, asked: “Why don’t they gather around against the open crematorium that is being conducted against the Palestinians?” Khalid Amayreh of the Palestinian Information Center claims that Gaza is “the Auschwitz of our time, the largest detention camp in the world.”
In the end, neither sloppy pundits nor crass exploiters can alter the simple and obvious facts about Auschwitz: It was, first and foremost, a death camp for Jews. The Allies could have bombed it, but refused to. And references to Auschwitz have no place in contemporary debates about military, political or social conflicts.