Undeniable and uncomfortable truths
However much pro-Palestinian activists abhor the state of Israel, the Jewish Holocaust happened and it must be accounted for, writes Sue Blackwell*
It was the shoes that finally got to me. Men's, women's and children's; mostly black and brown, and of course faded now, but here and there a hint of what might once have been something brighter. Some made of leather, others of cheaper fabrics. Most of them sturdy, practical -- after all, their wearers had been told to prepare for a long journey -- but the occasional sandal too; some of them still in pairs; others, like their owners, separated from their siblings; thousands of them, piled high in a glass case, but visibly different from each other.
Prior to this our group had been subjected to a torrent of facts and figures: the first prisoners here were 728 Poles sent from Tarnów on 14 June 1940. The first large group from outside Poland was a transport of Czechs in June 1941; Soviet prisoners of war started arriving one month later. The first transport consisting entirely of Jews was brought here in February 1942, from German Upper Silesia; it was followed by transports from Slovakia, France, Poland, Holland, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Norway, Greece and Italy. In the summer of 1944 more than 400,000 Jews were brought from Hungary over a period of two months and most of them were gassed immediately upon arrival. On average, 75 per cent of each transport was murdered immediately. Up to 2,000 people could be killed at a time, in 10 to 20 minutes.
"Any questions?" asked our young Polish guide, expecting and receiving none.
You could stand there hearing all these statistics and somehow they didn't seem real. Hundreds, thousands, millions; they were figures, not people. But the shoes brought it home to me that every single person who came here was not just a tattooed number but an individual human being with a past, a family, a home, a story, a dream.
Why had I come to this place, whose very name has become synonymous with hell on earth? First, I think, to pay my respects to those who suffered and perished there. To have opportunity to visit Auschwitz and not take it would amount to heaping one more indignity on their heads. Second, I wanted to educate myself: to learn more about the Jewish holocaust, its victims and its perpetrators. And if I'm honest with myself, there was a third reason. I wanted to be able to say: "I've been there, I've seen the evidence and it's overwhelming."
To whom did I need to say this? Not to myself, certainly: like most English people of my generation I have a father who fought against Nazi Germany and who brought me up to understand why. But increasingly these days I find myself having acrimonious exchanges, usually by email, with people whose messages start by expressing their support for my stand on Palestine and then continue with "I think you ought to read this."
"This" often consists of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which for a document over a hundred years old has weathered remarkably well. It crops up everywhere on the internet, including the weblogs of people who claim to be campaigners for Palestinian rights. I had a graduate student in my office not long ago, a highly intelligent young man who is a member of a socialist party in the UK. He told me in all seriousness that I really ought to read this incredible exposé of a world Jewish conspiracy, which was apparently new to him.
The Times of London discredited this document as a forgery as long ago as August 1921, yet it continues to enjoy a wide circulation. I'm told that its Arabic translation is particularly popular, and I recall that it featured prominently in "Horseman without a Horse" screened on Egyptian television in 2002.
Hitler was a great fan of the Protocols, and so are those today who think he got a bad press, such as Ernst Zèndel who is currently facing trial in Germany for Holocaust denial. Worryingly, some of my correspondents don't see anything wrong with promoting the writings and websites of people like Zèndel or fellow Holocaust deniers David Irving or Paul Eisen. "My enemy's enemy is my friend" seems to be the reasoning: and so these Asian and Arab activists, with no apparent sense of irony let alone shame, send me links to sites with names like "Stormfront" which preach "White Power". And because the Holocaust is used as justification for Jewish emigration to Israel, those who detest what Israel represents feel that justification cannot be allowed to stand.
Let me make myself clear: I do not think there should be any taboo areas for academic research or debate. If genuine historians find, in the course of their work, that the number of Jews who perished was less than six million, then let's hear it. But if they are proper historians they should also be open to the possibility that the real figure was higher. That's why David Irving is not a proper historian: he has an axe to grind and he will look only for the documents which support his revisionist agenda, ignoring, distorting or mistranslating those which do not.
At his failed libel case against Deborah Lipstadt, the judge, Justice Gray, concluded that Irving had "deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence". Irving is now facing trial himself in Austria for two speeches he made in 1989, during which he allegedly claimed there had been no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Well, Mr Irving, if you go there you can stand in one and take a look around. I suggest you do so once they let you out. And while you're at it, please take the president of Iran with you.
You do not have to deny the Holocaust in order to condemn Israel. First, there is the fact that Zionist emigration to Palestine began in the late 19th century, long before the Third Reich. Second, there is the simple moral argument that two wrongs do not make a right: whatever suffering the Jewish people have endured does not make it okay to take the land of another people who never did them any harm. And there is a third argument, which for me is the definitive one.
Some of the faces that stared down at me from the walls of the Auschwitz exhibitions were not Jewish. If Israel is the answer to anti-Semitism then what is the answer for the other five million victims of the Nazis? Where is the homeland for gay men? The very idea sounds ridiculous. Yet homophobia is very much alive all over the world today, and gay men and lesbians have every right to seek to escape the violence it often leads to.
Where is the homeland for people with physical and mental disabilities? For Catholic priests and Jehovah's Witnesses? What about the Romani and Sinti gypsies, some one million of whom perished at the hands of the Third Reich? We know that they came originally from north-west India some time in the 11th century, so surely the solution is obvious: they should go back there. There are 12-15 million Roma dispersed around the world today and they suffer horrendous racism and persecution in every part of it, particularly Europe. So, let them return to the Panjab, a land without a people for a people without a land; too bad for the Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians currently living there. Outrageous? Of course. And so is what Zionism has done to the Palestinians.
Amongst Jews, there is a long and honourable alternative current to Zionism: namely, socialism. (It is no coincidence that Nazis past and present have always linked Jews and Communists in their conspiracy theories). It is epitomised in the manifesto issued by the Jewish Armed Resistance Organisation to the non-Jewish Poles outside the Warsaw Ghetto as the uprising began in April 1943: "All of us will probably perish in the fight, but we shall never surrender! We, as well as you, are burning with the desire to punish the enemy for all his crimes, with a desire for vengeance. It is a fight for our freedom, as well as yours: for our human dignity and national honour, as well as yours! We shall avenge the gory deeds of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Treblinka, Belzec and Majdanek!"
The socialist ideology of Marx, Trotsky and Luxemburg, of Abraham Leon and Marek Edelman, is an inclusive one, urging unity with non-Jews against the common enemy instead of either going meekly to one's death or running away to Israel. I recommend it to you. There is a surprising number of non-Zionist Jews in the world, but you are not likely to be welcomed by them and work with them if you set out by denying that Hitler murdered their relatives.
Last week many countries, including the UK, marked Holocaust Memorial Day. The Muslim Council of Britain boycotted this event, as they did last year. I do not agree with them, despite my enthusiasm for boycotts
in general. Rather, those of us who find the hypocrisy of our governments repugnant should make the day our own and strive to make it more inclusive: a remembrance of all acts of genocide and crimes against humanity the world over. And in that list, as well as the Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Nazi holocaust, the dead of Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, and the Armenian massacres, should be the "victims of the victims" as Edward Said called them - the Palestinians of the Nakba in 1948, whose suffering still goes largely unacknowledged
and who are still waiting for justice. In calling for an end to denial, we should make no exceptions."
* The writer is a trade union activist in Birmingham, UK, who campaigns for the human rights of the Palestinian people and for boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment against Israel.