England’s former secretary of education, Kenneth Baker, ignited a controversy last month by proposing that the Holocaust be removed from school curricula, lest it cause students to think badly of modern-day Germany.
Ironically, during the Holocaust itself, British and American officials likewise worried that too much focus on the mass murder of the Jews would cause political or other problems.
For example, officials of the British Foreign Office in August 1942 prevented a member of Parliament from transmitting a report about the killing to Jewish leaders in the United States on the grounds that it might, as they put it, “annoy the Germans.” On another occasion, a Foreign Office official worried that publicity over the slaughter would compel his colleagues “to waste a disproportionate amount of their time in dealing with wailing Jews.”
Officials of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration were concerned that too much emphasis on the persecution of the Jews would increase pressure on the United States to take action to help them. Thus, at Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s insistence, all references to Jews were omitted from a leaflet dropped over Europe in 1944, warning civilians not to collaborate with the Nazis. President Roosevelt’s 1944 statement commemorating the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt - a rebellion by Jewish fighters - did not mention Jews. Allied leaders meeting in Moscow in 1943 threatened postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages … Cretan peasants … [and] the people of Poland,” but not Jews.
A desire to push aside the Holocaust affected even the Allies’ postwar policies.
In his study of the British government’s attitude toward punishing Nazi war criminals, professor Arieh Kochavi found that Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden favored prosecuting only a limited number of Nazis, for fear of “a situation in which trials might drag on for years and thus delay the return to a peaceful atmosphere in Europe.” The U.S. high commissioner in postwar Germany from 1949 to 1952, John J. McCloy, pardoned numerous Nazi war criminals in the hope of strengthening U.S.-German relations.
In more recent times, the desire to downplay the Holocaust has made for some strange bedfellows. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any other issue on which such disparate figures as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman could find common ground.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson reportedly complained in 1979. He said he resented “having America be in put in the position of a guilt trip.” Given Mr. Jackson’s own list of accusations about America’s behavior at home and abroad, one may suspect his problem with the Holocaust was that it was drawing attention away from his own pet causes and preferred victims.
Mr. Friedman, for his part, charged in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” that “Israel today is becoming Yad Vashem with an air force.” He claimed that an excessive focus on the Holocaust among Israelis is to blame for, among other things, their impatient driving habits, unethical business dealings, meek acceptance of high taxes, and reluctance to make more concessions to the Arabs.
The good news, though, is that the American public, at least, does not seem to share such narrow-mindedness. Movies with Holocaust themes continue to attract substantial audiences and critical acclaim. The book “In the Garden of Beasts,” which deals largely with the persecution of Jews in Hitler Germany in the 1930s, has been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than six months, and Miklos Nyiszli’s memoir, “Auschwitz,” has been an e-book best-seller for more than four months.
It seems that ordinary Americans understand - far better than some partisan grumblers - that there is still value in studying the Holocaust and the world’s response to it.
Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington.
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'Your papers, please' must never be heard in America