On April 12, 1945, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower entered Buchenwald. He described what he saw as “beyond the American mind to comprehend.” He immediately ordered photographs to be taken, afraid that some day people might deny the existence of barbarity at such scale. He wanted to ensure that the world would never forget the tragedy and horrors of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s worst fears have come to fruition.
Reasonable minds can differ about many things, and there are two sides to many stories. However, some things are not up for debate. The Holocaust happened. That is historical fact. Although it shocks and frustrates us that we continue to be compelled to make this clear, we will continue to raise our voices until hatred and bigotry are eviscerated.
In the past few years, several political candidates around the country have made news by including Holocaust denial as part of their platform. It is disappointing when articles and interviews appear, seemingly legitimizing these candidates’ fringe views and lifting them toward celebrity. Now it has happened locally when a Pinellas County Commission candidate and Holocaust denier and homophobe was highlighted in an article in our area’s largest newspaper. When an individual engages in Holocaust denial and other forms of bigotry in the same county where a major Holocaust museum is located, it is not an act of ignorance. It is an act of hate. At the museum, and at the hundreds of schools and other locations throughout Florida that we touch, we teach children and adults to call out hate when they see it. We also practice what we preach. We will not stand for hate anywhere, especially in our own back yard.
If anyone in Florida or anywhere else questions the Holocaust, we can introduce you to people who were there. Check our website for survivor and liberator talks. They occur almost every day. You can also attend one or more of the hundreds of programs we offer at the museum and throughout Florida.
You can also visit our galleries where, using a portion of the more than 18,000 objects we have in our collection, we recount the experiences of those who survived, and those who were murdered. While you are there, you will learn legitimate, deeply researched and witnessed historical facts about the Holocaust.
Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism. It is a sickening lie, where Jews are accused of planting evidence of their own genocide in order to gain world sympathy and force Germany and other European countries to pay reparations for Nazi crimes the deniers say were never committed. Based on anti-Semitic tropes that have been around for more than a millennia, this same conspiracy theory insists that Jews have some special power to control governments, media, and financial institutions. History has shown that wherever anti-Semitism has gone unchecked, the persecution of others has been present or not far behind. Hate only serves to feed other hate. This, too, is a historical fact.
At this moment in time, we have Holocaust survivors and World War II liberators who can personally refute the creeping Holocaust denial and/or minimization that has gained traction with certain people. Soon, this generation will be no longer be with us, and the torch will be passed to the rest of civil society.
As members of civil society, your actions matter.
We know that hate is a learned behavior and that education is the way to combat it. It is critical that you educate yourself, your children and your grandchildren so that you can pass down the lessons of the Holocaust. We will continue our battle but we need your help and leadership in order to succeed. It is incumbent on all of us to honor the memory of millions of men, women and children who suffered or died in the Holocaust.
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It is essential that future generations understand the terrible consequences of unchecked hatred so they are prepared to stand up and speak out against it. Our collective future is at stake.
Elizabeth Gelman is executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. Michael Igel is the board chair of the museum.