Tomorrow marks the 67th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army in the waning days of World War II.
That epic event provided the world with a glimpse into the potential darkness of the human soul, as stunned Soviet soldiers came face to face with the irrefutable depravity of the German genocide against the Jewish people.
The troops found over 7,000 ill and emaciated inmates struggling to hang on to life, as well as stark evidence of the extent of the Nazis' crimes. Hundreds of thousands of men's and women's garments, and over 14,000 pounds of human hair, all bore witness to the mass murder that had taken place there. In all of modern history, the German assault on the Jews stood out for its systematic cruelty and barbaric ruthlessness.
Nearly seven decades later, the memory of that horror is increasingly in jeopardy. More and more people seek to use the Holocaust in ways that dilute its ultimate meaning. Indeed, the calamity suffered by the Jewish people, who lost one-third of their ranks in the flames of Hitler's hatred, is increasingly being pushed aside to make room for a broader-based, more "universalist" message.
This cannot be allowed to happen. However well-intentioned the effort might be, we must not permit the lessons of the Holocaust to become garbled for the sake of promoting any particular agenda.
Sadly, a prime example of this approach is to be found in many of the commemorations that are being held this week as part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27 to serve as an annual day of memorial for the victims of the Nazis. Each year, events and ceremonies are held around the world with the support and participation of governments and civic groups.
Many of these gatherings rightly stress the unique suffering that was inflicted on the Jewish people. But others seem to veer off course, virtually snubbing the victims in their eagerness to battle various forms of modern-day bigotry.
Take, for instance, Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain, which is being held this year under the motto of "Speak up, Speak out." It is organized by a group called the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), which the British government set up and funds. Incredibly, on the HMDT homepage, there is no mention of the word "Jew" in reference to the Holocaust. It requires a bit of patience, and several acts of mouse-clicking, just to find materials that explain what the Jewish people endured.
The site encourages people to sign a pledge toward "ending the language of hatred" which references the Holocaust alongside "genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur," as though it were just one of many. The result, of course, is that those who are not wellversed in history might very well come away thinking that there was nothing exceptional about Jewish suffering.
Similarly, the United Nations has also fallen prey to this kind of approach. Recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon visited a synagogue in New York, where he said, "The United Nations attaches great importance not only to this single day of remembrance, but to our work throughout the year to educate the world about the universal lessons of the Holocaust."
"The Holocaust," he said, "affected so many different groups, and so many professions, that it is vital to reach new audiences with this history."
To be sure, the "universal lessons" of the Holocaust are worth disseminating. But what about the distinctive lessons as well? The Holocaust was first and foremost an attempt by Germany and its collaborators to annihilate the Jewish people. It highlighted the vulnerability of Jewish life in exile and the danger that rampant anti-Semitism poses when it infects the masses. This simple truth cannot be allowed to become muddied, minimized or overlooked.
Are there moral and historical messages to be gleaned from the Holocaust? Of course. But there is no justification for glossing over the distinctiveness of the devastation that was wrought on the Jewish people. Simply put, the Holocaust is not a talking point and we must not allow it to become one.
However crucial it is to combat hatred and discrimination, it should not come at the price of blurring the memory of the six million.