Holocaust Distortion: What Is It and Why Is It So Harmful?

The COVID-19 pandemic, now raging into its third year, exposed many faults in our societal institutions, from hospitals’ lack of preparation for outbreaks to the digital divide, where students from low-income families may not have the internet access to attend online school. But while a strained transition to social distancing and general pandemic life was anticipated, the surge of Holocaust distortion — and its acceptance — was not.

As defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Holocaust distortion is “rhetoric, written work, or other media that excuse, minimize, or misrepresent the known historical record of the Holocaust.” The 2019 document emphasizes the importance of refraining from using the Holocaust as a comparative talking point in social and political contexts — a warning that has not been heeded in the past two years as political pundits and civilian protestors have embraced Holocaust comparisons to indicate disdain for pandemic measures.

In November, for instance, former 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan compared chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, to Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor who performed experiments on Auschwitz prisoners. Logan evoked the memory of Mengle when criticizing lockdown mandates. Politicians, too, were quick to make these kinds of comparisons. Republican House Representative Lauren Boebert anointed vaccine door knockers “needle Nazis” and Arizona Republican Party chairwoman Kelli Ward issued a tweet likening vaccine papers to the yellow stars that Nazis forced Jewish people to wear during the Second World War as a marker of their identity. While comparing a well-meaning doctor to the man known as the “Angel of Death” is disconcerting in its own right, it is only a glimpse at an endemic issue: a lack of proper Holocaust awareness and education.

Two studies conducted in the past two years — conveniently, as the pandemic provided real-life examples for the statistics — support the notion that Holocaust education is inadequate in both the United States and Canada. In the first study of Holocaust awareness to survey Gen Z and millennials from all 50 states, the Claims Conference found that 11% of respondents believed that Jewish people were responsible for the Holocaust, while nearly half of the participants reported encountering Holocaust denial or distortion online. In a separate survey, the Pew Research Center posed a number of multiple-choice questions to participants, focusing entirely on historical knowledge of the Holocaust (“What were Nazi-created ghettos?” is an example of a question). Only two questions — “How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?” and “How did Hitler become chancellor of Germany?” — were answered correctly by less than half of those surveyed.

If this feels like an education issue, it is. More than half of the states do not mandate Holocaust education in school. Even then, having this policy in place does not naturally result in productive and sensitive pedagogy. In the fall of 2021, a Texas superintendent told teachers that books about the Holocaust should be taught alongside ones that offer “other perspectives,” suggesting that doing so would be in line with a new state law. Two months later, it came to light that a teacher in an elementary school in Washington, D.C. ordered third-grade students to act out the Holocaust, casting one student as Adolf Hitler and others as mass-grave diggers. (Astonishingly, this kind of role-playing activity has been assigned in other school districts before). And though these are one-off incidents, they cannot be written off as rogue anomalies. They are part of a larger education system that seems to broach the topic of the Holocaust simplistically and with little nuance. How many of you, for instance, were made to read (or watch) The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in school, a book that has long been criticized by scholars for its one-dimensional portrayal of Jews?

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