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Forgetting the Holocaust

It's Easier Than You Think

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Many children of survivors share a grave concern that the memory of the Holocaust will be wiped out--and so history will be doomed to repeat itself. A new book by New York Times reporter Judith Miller suggests that in some of the very countries where atrocities occurred, the memory has already been so wrapped in myth that it might as well be forgotten, and in others the terrible truth cannot be forgotten because it has never really been faced. Miller looked at five European countries and the United States, studying the ways people revise and rationalize in an effort to insulate themselves. Here are some of the findings reported in her book, One, by One, by One: Facing the Holocaust:

8 Germany: During the 1950s West Germany consciously deemphasized the events of the recent past lest they exacerbate East-West cold-war tensions. Consequently, a whole generation grew up practically ignorant of their country's deeds. More recently, prominent German writers have argued, among other things, that Hitler was justified in "interning" the Jews, that the massacre of Jews was no different and no worse than other genocidal activities, such as Pol Pot's savagery in Cambodia, and that, in any event, it's time to "draw a line" at the bottom of the account. Until recently East Germany insisted that West Germany alone was responsible for the murder of Jewish citizens.

8 Austria: Ever since the end of World War II the country has presented itself to the world as the "protomartyr," the first innocent victim of Nazi aggression. In reality, its citizenry overwhelmingly supported Hitler's annexation. (If The Sound of Music had been true to life, claims Miller, patriotic Austrians would not have been singing "Edelweiss" but "Deutschland Uber Alles.") Blatantly erroneous history books have not been changed, and the heads of the country's gestapo and euthanasia program were never prosecuted. The 1986 presidential campaign of Kurt Waldheim indicated that the level of anti-Semitism in Austria remains higher than in almost any other country in Europe.

8 Holland: The Dutch have made Anne Frank a national idol, a symbol of how valiantly they tried to save their Jewish population. In fact, only 25 percent of Holland's Jews survived the war, the lowest survival rate of any Western European country. The widow of the deputy chief of the Dutch Nazi party still receives an $11,000-a-year pension from the government though she is well-known as an active and avid disseminator of pro-Nazi literature.

8 France: Banking heavily on the country's image as the preeminent staunch resister of the Nazi occupation, French historians largely ignore the country's centuries-old anti-Semitism. In all, 25 percent of French Jews were deported to concentration camps with the aid of the nation's police and citizenry. On two days alone in the summer of 1942, some 8,200 Parisian Jews were rounded up and sent off. Though the myth of a glorious, united resistance was shattered somewhat by the 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie and by powerful films such as Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity, Miller says most young French people appear terminally bored with history.

8 Russia: Because of repeated purges of government archives, the history of the "Great Patriotic War" (the Russian name for World War II) cannot be found in official books or records. In addition, not a single book devoted to anti-Semitism has been published officially in the USSR in more than 50 years. Because so many non-Jews died during the war, the extent to which Jews were singled out is obscured. Yet in some cities, Minsk, for example, the entire Jewish population was wiped out. Miller claims that Gorbachev has done much to replace official myth with a "truer version" of the past.

8 In the United States a 1988 survey revealed that more than 75 percent of American Jews regarded anti-Semitism as "a serious problem." Many felt that the Holocaust was "being demeaned by . . . bad made-for-television movies and trashy novels." It is also under occasional attack as "a great lie" by revisionists who insist no mass execution of Jews ever happened; the recent highly publicized letter from a Winnetka couple to thousands of Chicago-area academics, journalists, and civic leaders is only the latest example. "Vulgarization takes many forms in pluralistic America," writes Miller. "But it always results in a denial of dignity, in a gross distortion of the Holocaust for contemporary goals and ends."

Miller concludes, "In every country, every culture I explored, irrespective of national character or political ideology, a particularly national form of self-deception has usually triumphed over self-revelation. The need to evade has most often transcended illumination."

Miller predicts that as the survivors grow older and die, their adult children will play a crucial role in keeping alive the memory of what occurred. "For watching and listening to parents has given . . . children of survivors a special relationship to the Holocaust. They do not draw from the traumas the same conclusions as their parents, of course, but the so-called 'second generation' has a proximity to the suffering that most of us cannot share."

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