Lev Golinkin is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.”
Politicians and historians are sparring over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison of immigrant detention centers to concentration camps. This is a now-familiar topic: Over the past three years, America has had numerous arguments over the legacy of the Holocaust.
These debates are tragically moot. While we’re bickering over semantics and analogies, Europe is holding marches in honor of SS units, glorifying men responsible for butchering hundreds of thousands of Jews, and building apartments on top of Holocaust sites.
The notion that Holocaust remembrance remains uniquely sacred and inviolable is a comforting illusion — but one no longer grounded in reality, particularly in Europe. “Never forget” is dead. And it’s been killed on our watch.
In 1944, the Hungarian government of Miklos Horthy aided the Nazis in sending 424,000 Jews to their deaths. Today, Horthy — a Hitler ally who passed numerous anti-Semitic laws — is being lionized by the autocratic government of Viktor Orban.
Hungary isn’t an isolated case. In neighboring Slovakia, Nazi collaborator Jozef Tiso, who helped liquidate his country’s Jews, is now viewed as a hero by many. The same trend is happening with Croatia’s Ustashe fascists, who committed war crimes against Jews and the Roma. Groups in Ukraine and Latvia hold marches honoring SS units, with members of the Waffen-SS cheered in broad daylight. The virus of Holocaust revisionism has spread to Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and even France, which attempted to honor Third Reich collaborator Philippe Pétain last November.
All this distortion and denial is being institutionalized, often with the aid of governments. Alternative narratives whitewashing the butchers of Jews are being written into history books, museums and school curriculums, and popularized in film and song.
But it gets worse.
Ordinarily, Holocaust memory would be defended by Israel. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been courting far-right regimes, including Poland and Hungary, to secure friendly votes at the United Nations. In exchange, he’s turned a blind eye to Holocaust revisionism.
Last year alone, Netanyahu capitulated to Warsaw’s law denying Polish involvement in the Holocaust (“betrayal” is how leading Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer summed up the affair); praised Lithuania — a site of rampant whitewashing of local collaborators — for “helping to preserve the truth about the Holocaust”; pandered to Orban’s controversial Holocaust museum in Budapest; and twisted the Yad Vashem museum to his own political ends.
By throwing the memory of Holocaust victims under the bus, Netanyahu has removed his country from the fight to save "never forget."
But it gets even worse.
While some European Jewish leaders are bravely speaking out against Holocaust distortion, doing so is becoming increasingly dangerous, especially in illiberal places such as Poland and Hungary. Last year, Poland exploded in anti-Semitism, with the prime minister even telling the child of Holocaust survivors there were “Jewish perpetrators” of the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Hungary’s Orban waged anti-Semitic campaigns against Nazi survivor George Soros and refused to denounce anti-Semitism leveled at a Hungarian Jewish leader.
As Europe sees a revitalization of anti-Semitism and Holocaust erasure, who will stand up for Holocaust victims? The only ones left are American Jews and allies — the very people who seem more concerned with debating Ocasio-Cortez’s comments than responding to the disturbing trends across Europe.
The ability to rein in Holocaust revisionism is there: In 2015, the Obama administration, together with Jewish leaders, prevented the erection of a controversial statue in Hungary. Even with President Trump in the White House, there is much we can do to rally lawmakers and make it clear that American foreign policy will not tolerate Holocaust distortion and denial.
But as I discovered when raising this issue with Jewish federations across the United States, American Jews are largely unaware of the desecration in Europe, while their leaders and lawmakers respond with little more than an occasional toothless press release. Indeed, the responses of several American Jewish groups to Warsaw’s blatant Holocaust denial were just as anemic as Netanyahu’s.
The latest heartbreaking example came this April, when Polish nationalists staged a rally against Holocaust reparations in New York. Rampant Holocaust denial was reported in leaflets and signs — yet almost no mainstream Jewish groups came to protest this travesty.
In the 1930s, the Jews of Europe were left naked and trembling before the Nazis. Today, their very memory is being violated with impunity. Surely we can stand up for them with more than essays about semantics, more than choreographed moments of silence.
We’ve already been silent for far too long.