I’m writing this column on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked annually on the anniversary of January 27, 1945 when the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death camps, a place where more than a million Jews were murdered in a genocide that killed six million.
In cities around the world solemn ceremonies are being held to mark the day – including here in Ottawa where a ceremony is being held at City Hall as I write. (See a report in our next issue.)
Throughout the day, I’ve read statements from political and communal leaders commemorating this day of Holocaust remembrance. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, issued a moving statement:
“Today, on the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we remember the more than six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust and the countless other victims of Nazi brutality.
“The Holocaust serves as a tragic reminder of the horrors that can be born of racism and hate. We must always remember those who experienced the worst of humanity – in ghettos, cattle cars, and Nazi death camps – and never forget our collective responsibility to prevent the seeds of intolerance and hate from taking root in our communities, country, and world.
“As we take time today to reflect on the haunting legacy of the Holocaust, let us pay tribute to the strength and spirit of the Jewish people and the many others who persevered during one of the darkest periods of human history.
“Today, and every day, we reaffirm our commitment to stand against anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and prejudice in all its forms. It is through this commitment that we remember those we have lost and honour those whose stories must never be forgotten.”
I’ve also read several sad – if not disturbing – reports in recent days of things that serve to trivialize the Holocaust. For example, some young people were taking selfies at Germany’s national Holocaust monument in Berlin and then posting them with mean-spirited or goofy captions on social media.
Another example, from the Czech Republic, was an “Auschwitz game” in which players are trapped in a room simulating a “gas chamber” and have to use game clues to figure a way out. “You are waiting for your last shower! But you can stay alive if you get out,” was one of the game’s marketing slogans.
When faced with criticism from the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, the game’s promoters claimed their intent was to promote Holocaust education. They offered tickets to the game at a special price for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
And in Milan, Italy, the first installation there of Stolpersteine (stumbling stones), commemorative cobblestones marking the homes of Jews murdered during the Holocaust, were covered over with black paint within a day of their installation on January 19.
Such stories – and others like the week-long spate of anti-Semitic, racist and Islamophobic graffiti we experienced here in Ottawa in November – underscore the need for ongoing Holocaust commemoration and, particularly, for effective Holocaust education in our schools.
And, to that, I will add that the trivialization of the term “Nazi” must stop. Too many people throw that term around for almost any reason – particularly, it seems, on social media.
But this kind of thing began long before Facebook and Twitter came along. About 25 years ago, I wrote an op-ed in the Montreal Gazette about the scourge of second-hand smoke and called for smoking to be banned in restaurants and in bars during concerts. I was called a “health Nazi” for that column. After mass shootings, I’ve seen people calling for gun control referred to as “gun Nazis.” I’ve even seen people who want folk music or jazz festivals to actually centre on folk music or jazz called “folk Nazis” and “jazz Nazis.” And that’s not to mention sitcom soup vendors who want their line-ups to flow in a prescribed way.
Such use of the word “Nazi” is offensive and cheapens its meaning. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember what real Nazis did.