For years, the horrors of the Holocaust were demonstrated to the public through the stories of victims and the soldiers who liberated them. Speeches by Holocaust victims used to pack arenas on college campuses across the nation. Few college students secured their cap and gown without hearing a survivor speak on their campus. These survivors and witnesses have begun to steadily die off. With their departure, the Holocaust is in danger of no longer being understood as a living horror but as a tragedy of the past, unrepeatable in nature.
Sean Spicer’s denial of Hitler’s “use of chemical weapons” is therefore coming at quite literally the worst time.
If Spicer had made these comments 10 years ago, renowned Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel would have immediately repudiated them. Wiesel and others knew first hand that Hitler most certainly used “chemical weapons” on “his people” –- primarily Zyklon B on the Jews. That fact was often best understood by listening to the first-hand narrative of survivors.
Similar incredulity would undoubtedly have been expressed at the Trump White House’s omission of Jews from its official statement on Holocaust Remembrance. Holocaust survivors –- and their stories –- used to serve as a buffer to this misrepresentation. Without them, however, this White House’s utter disrespect towards the Jewish-focused ethnic cleansing that was the Holocaust becomes more powerful and more dangerous.
Not everyone can travel to concentration camps or the Anne Frank House. Not everyone can see the display of human hair at Auschwitz that the Nazis used to craft textiles. Not everyone can walk inside a gas chamber and see the holes from which Zyklon B was dropped. I was at Auschwitz a little over a week ago, and I can tell you: idea that “Hitler didn’t gas anyone” is absurd and deserves to be dismantled immediately. Hitler gassed millions of Jews, and despite what Sean Spicer says, these Jews were “his own people.” The White House Spicer represents is a revered institution, and one whose word is normally respected without much thought.
Sean Spicer and the Trump White House’s repeated misrepresentation of the Holocaust is therefore incredibly dangerous, as it has the potential to damage an entire generation’s understanding of its horrors. Without Elie Wiesel and other victims to tell their stories and rebuff illegitimate representations of history, contemporary Jews are now left to address these falsehoods on our own. If we fail to do so, the Holocaust -– the Nazi project to wipe Jews from the face of the earth –- will become dry, dusty, and academic; if not fully repudiated. When it does, the anti-Semitism it represents will become understood as a thing of the past, rather than the current phenomenon it is.
The first-person narrative of Holocaust survivors used to counter misrepresentation such as Spicer’s. In an age where the White House openly derides the Jewish-centric nature of the Holocaust, this void of Holocaust survivors is becoming more clear and damaging than ever before.