This year’s commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, was at once illuminated and overshadowed by extraordinary statements on the Holocaust emanating from Europe and the Middle East.
The first came from a familiar source and was delivered in a familiarly unhinged tone. President Abbas, wounded by Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a serious blow to the Palestinian strategy of extracting unilateral concessions from Israel, delivered a two-hour address to a gathering of the PLO’s Central Council. In a feat of stream of consciousness oratory by insult that would have made Castro blush, Abbas called on the Almighty to demolish the house of Trump, then accused Israel of ‘importing frightening amounts of drugs in order to destroy’ Palestinian youth.
Such was the depth and variety of Abbas’s mania that his comments on the Holocaust were largely overlooked, and were hardly reported outside Israel. Abbas has form in the field of Holocaust revisionism. In 1984, he published The Other Side: the Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism, in which he alleged that Zionists incited and encouraged the Nazis to destroy the Jews in order to build support for Zionism, and deliberately inflated the total number of Jewish dead from a few hundred thousand. During his address in Ramallah, Abbas did at least recognise that six million Jews had been killed, albeit in a declaration that, ‘six million Jews preferred to be killed by the Nazis in Europe rather than leave for Israel’. This statement was so appalling and yet so typical of Palestinian discourse that it drew little repudiation.
Of course, Jews were unable to emigrate from Germany after the outbreak of war, while those living in other countries either had no means of getting out, were barred from entering places to which they might have emigrated, were trapped by the speed of the German advance, or simply could not comprehend that they would soon face execution having committed no crime. Abbas’s speech, in which he also insisted that Israel is a ‘colonial project’ that ‘has nothing to do with Jews’ demonstrated, yet again, that his objection is not to Israeli policy but rather to Israel’s very existence as a free and independent homeland for the Jewish people.
Next, Poland delivered its own disturbing assault on the history of the Holocaust, passing a bill which would prohibit public discussion that deviates from the government position that the Poles were only ever victims of Nazi occupation and never collaborators in the destruction of the Jews. The Polish government does have a point that referring to Nazi death camps as ‘Polish death camps’ (as Barack Obama did in 2012), falsely suggests that they were built and operated by the Poles, rather than by the occupying Germans.
The truth of course lies between the opposing views of Poles as victims and perpetrators. Poland was invaded and conquered by a Nazi German regime that viewed Poles as racially inferior. In eastern Poland, one thousand Polish children were killed and a hundred thousand adults were expelled as part of a Nazi plan for the colonisation of Poland. Prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Soviet secret police murdered 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia in a series of mass shootings in Katyn Forest and other places. Poland also produced the greatest number of non-Jews recognised by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum for saving Jewish lives.
But as historians including Jan Grabowski have found, a significant number of Poles also played an active role in all aspects of the Holocaust, to ‘realise their own dream of a Jew-free Poland’. Emanuel Ringelblum, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, noted that Polish police units ‘played a most lamentable role in the extermination of the Jews of Poland … [and were] enthusiastic executors of all the German directives regarding the Jews.’ Polish peasants burned 340 Jews alive in a barn in the village of Jedwabne. In July 1946, a year after the liberation of Poland, 42 Jews, including a new born baby and a pregnant woman were beaten to death by a Polish mob in Kielce.
In spectacular contrast, on 22 January, Dr M. Al Issa, the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, a Saudi-based Islamic organisation, wrote to the director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, expressing ‘great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust’, calling the Holocaust, an ‘incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.’ The significance of the letter cannot be understated given the prevalence of both Holocaust denial and glorification in the Islamic world. Yet as with Abbas’s ramblings and the Polish legislation, the Saudi letter was surely motivated by a deeper purpose. One suspects that for the Saudis, just as for the Polish Government and Abbas, the Holocaust is not a crime of unimaginable scale and barbarism, rather, it is something expendable, malleable, a literary device through which to signal virtues and stigmatise opponents.
Abbas admitted as much in response to a call from the Simon Wiesenthal Center requesting that he explain himself for his revisionism. Abbas responded, ‘When I wrote The Other Side… we were at war with Israel. Today, there is peace and what I write from now on must advance the peace process.’ Now, in a less conciliatory mood, mutilating the national tragedy of his foes is Abbas’s way of expressing his disgust and his nihilism.
For the Poles, as with much of Europe, the reality that locals were often only too happy to see the demise of their Jewish neighbours, undermines glorious national traditions and collective memories of pure victimhood and righteousness. This is the real reason for the latest attempt by the Polish government to ‘protect’ its history from prying eyes.
Taken at face value, the Saudi letter could constitute a watershed moment in Jewish-Muslim relations. Viewed more cynically, it’s a calculated attempt to ingratiate the Saudis to American Jewry by standing apart from the revisionists and deniers who infest the ranks of the Saudis’ bitter rivals in Tehran. Whatever the motives underpinning the Saudi letter, Abbas’s delirium and Polish attempts at revisionism by decree, the history of the Holocaust is a truth that cannot be altered and will forever overshadow humanity.
Alex Ryvchin is the director of public affairs at the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. His new book is ‘The Anti-Israel Agenda – Inside the Political War on the Jewish State’ (Gefen, 2017)