Every year there are fewer Holocaust survivors alive to tell their story, to serve as a living testament to the horrors of the exterminationist Nazi regime.
A regime that existed, inside Europe, and killed 17 million people. That taught us that we must always remain vigilant lest it ever happen again.
Nie Wieder (Never Again) the world declared, as the horrors of the death camps became apparent. Then we proceeded to repeat the mistake again and again; at Srebrenica, in Myanmar, in Syria and in Cambodia.
Britain 2019. On the streets of Westminster crowds of unemployable thugs in high-vis vests frantically race around calling politicians fascists and Nazis, they stream themselves and post across social media, people reply in the comments calling them Nazis.
On Twitter political discussion inevitably descends to a childish race to prove that Corbynists, Tories, Zionists or Trump fans are the same as the Nazis.
But people walk among us with tattoos marked forever on their skin by the actual Nazis. We said we’d never forget, but we’ve killed the memory of a singularly unique event in history by reducing it to a crude rhetorical tool.
Many are now growing up with little knowledge of the deaths of 17 million people and the anti-Semitic rhetoric used to build the death camps is still leading to the deaths of Jews around the world.
In January 2014 I was dispatched to interview a Holocaust survivor named Martin Bennett.
He had survived Auschwitz with his brother and dedicated his time to teaching young people about the horrors he had seen.
He had a tattoo on his arm that was put there by the Nazis, indelible. He had survived in defiance of their plan.
He told me his greatest fear was that some day he would be gone and that people would claim the events he lived through never happened.
I called Martin two years later to invite him to take part in a TV programme, he had passed away.
When I watched back the video of our interview, it carried a warning – the comments section was now closed due to the vile comments being made.
"To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice."
- Elie Wiesel
On August 25 2018 leading Holocaust scholars wrote to Mark Zuckerberg to warn him about spread of denial on his site.
Zuckerberg had previously said of the many anti-Semitic and revisionist conspiracy videos receiving tens of millions of views on his platform;
“I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down.”
The letter warned the Facebook chief against ignoring anti-Semitism;
“History proves that it is the canary in the coal mine; the first unravelling of a society’s moral fabric.”
Polling taken at the same time showed that 41 per cent of the US public was unsure what the Auschwitz death camp was, among millennials this rose to 66 per cent.
While social media giants are now moving to close off their platforms to Holocaust-deniers it may already be too late for an entire generation.
There have never been fewer living witnesses of the crimes of the Nazis, or more people who casually deny that those crimes took place.
"I would love to see Hitler today and show him my family and say to him; ‘you see, you tried to get rid of the Jews,
the gypsies and all the other people, you killed six million Jewish people, one and a half million were children...
but you did not succeed."
Zigi Shipper, Holocaust Survivor
Zigi Shipper turned 89 this month, like Martin Bennett he devotes his life to teaching the next generation about the events he lived through at Auschwitz.
“I never take money to speak…I don’t want people to say I am getting paid to say this,” he explains.
For holocaust survivors, their very existence is an act of defiance of the failed Nazi goal of a Judenfrei Europe.
“The only thing I wish today, people think I’m mental, maybe I am. I would love to see Hitler today and show him my family and say to him; ‘you see, you tried to get rid of the Jews, the gypsies and all the other people, you killed six million Jewish people, one and a half million were children...but you did not succeed.”
Born in Łódź, Poland, Zigi was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 from the ghetto he had been forced to live in by the Nazis. On arrival his group went through selection by a Nazi officer - those deemed unfit to work were killed.
“They point right and left. All the people that went to the left; children, old people, disabled people and babies...we didn’t know where they were taking them.”
“They took them away and the German guard went to the back of the building, he threw some Zyklon B gas in, I didn’t know what it was. Within twenty minutes everybody in that room was dead.
“The smell. When you arrived you didn’t know, you saw those high smoke stacks, and you thought oh, they must be doing their own baking. We didn’t know, kids, who knew? And if you said to someone they wouldn’t believe you.”
“If you are hungry, real hunger, which I hope will never happen to you. It’s the worst thing on earth...there was no medication and there was not enough food. A lot of women especially were committing suicide.”
The loss of humanity, the horrors of what he saw, all took Zigi years to understand and reconcile with. He was just a child at the time.
“We didn’t talk about it, we thought who was going to believe us?"
"We didn’t believe it when we were in the Ghetto what was happening in the camps.”
Why did denial go mainstream?
In 2006 the Iranian government hosted a two-day conference to “Review the global vision of the Holocaust”, the event’s notable speakers included former KKK leader David Duke, convicted Holocaust Denier Robert Faurisson and representatives of an obscure German group that claimed the Holocaust was a “lie”.
Attendees claimed the events at the extermination camps never happened, their propaganda bizarrely mimicking the third reich when they claimed it was part of a Jewish conspiracy.
The sick irony of the gathering is that many in attendance would have been happy for the Final Solution to have taken place.
It is unlikely that at the time this group of fringe weirdos backed by the internationally shunned Iranian regime could predict how far their ideas would travel online.
Now, seemingly omnipresent Rothschild and George Soros conspiracies breathe life back into an ancient hatred that has haunted Europe for 2000 years, the idea that Jews are secretly in control of world.
In this vision Jews are viewed paradoxically as an underclass of inferior people and the secretive ruling elite of the world.
Social media for years gave revisionist propaganda an equal footing with the truth, often ranking revisionist material higher in search results. The deniers tried to offer a more alluring version of history - an easier version for some to believe, a way to escape the horrors of what what humanity is capable of.
As always, it was just a conspiracy by "the Jews".
Anti-Semitic stereotypes remain widespread in Europe, a quarter of Europeans polled in 2018 claimed Jews hold “too much influence in business and finance”.
What starts with pamphlets and films, fringe theories painting a global conspiracy has an inevitable endpoint, violence on the streets.
Throughout 2018 - again we saw a rise in attacks against Jews across the world.
On October 27 in Pittsburgh 11 Jews were gunned down by a man who believed Jews were plotting a “white genocide” to deliberately make white people a minority in their own countries. This conspiracy has its origins in 1930s Germany.
In Britain there are now four anti-Semitic hate crimes committed against Jews each day.
Politicians in both Hungary and Poland want to ignore the unsavoury parts of their history, and even present themselves as victims.
In Hungary a major cultural battle continues to be waged over the country’s role in the Holocaust and mainstream politicians in the country regularly fall back on anti-Semitic scaremongering to bolster their popularity.
Prime Minister Victor Orban used posters of George Soros to during recent elections. They suggested Mr Soros was somehow linked to illegal immigration into the country.
Next door in Poland an illiberal government tried and failed to make it a crime to accuse Poles of complicity in Nazi war crimes. Both of these conservative nationalist states are building illiberal regimes that are happy to scapegoat minorities for their own shortcomings.
Why did it happen?
“Monsters exist, but they are too few
in number to be truly dangerous.
More dangerous are the common men,
the functionaries ready to believe
and to act without asking questions.”
- Primo Levi.
There are many prisms through which to view the Holocaust and try to build an understanding of why the events took place. It did not come from nowhere, rather it was the culmination of waves of hatred that took place over hundreds of years in Europe.
In the middle ages Jews were held to be collectively responsible for the death of Christ and accused of the ritual murder of children. In the 19th century they faced pogroms in Eastern Europe.
Jews were regularly scapegoated and expelled from cities, excluded from many occupations.
Europe has never been able to guarantee the safety of Jews and lost an important part of its own identity as a result. Jews played an integral part in the cultural and intellectual life of Europe, the 9 million who made their home here is now reduced to just 2.4 million.
“They succeeded in destroying a culture — a very old culture — that of European Jewry. The Jews were never fully a part of the larger societies in which they lived nor
were they ever fully apart from those societies.
The results were frequently disastrous for the Jews.”
- Moishe Postone
The loss of humanity is the hardest thing for Zigi Shipper to reconcile with. He was packed into a cattle car along with his grandmother to be taken from the Jewish ghetto to Auschwitz.
“I’ve got something in my mind and I can’t get rid of it. I’ve been trying so and I feel so ashamed."
“How can a child of 14 hope that people can die so he can have a place where to sit. What has become of me? I was completely dehumanised.”
“We were praying, why didn’t they kill us there and then? Why did they have to take us from one place to another.”
“After a few days I had a place to sit down, because half of the people, they were already dead.”
For Zigi the events can never be fully explained, the motivations of the Nazi officers who by day committed mass murders and in the evenings returned to their ordinary lives.
“How can a human being do that lunchtime and then go in the evening and have his dinner, knowing what they did.”
Zigi believes that to defeat those who want to erase the memory of the genocide that took place in Europe, targeting Jews, gypsies, disabled people, gay people, trade unionists, intellectuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, we have to continue to tell the story.
For him the lesson is a simple one.
“Don’t hate people."
“Hate is the worst thing in life, eventually you hate everybody including yourself and you’ve got no life to live.”
“People ask me do you forgive the german people...do you hate the German people. I say why should I hate the German people because your great grandfather might have committed a crime.”
“So they say; ‘Oh so you forgive?’...I feel that I haven’t got the right to forgive, if there is a God then he can forgive. If the people that died want to forgive, but I don’t have the right to forgive.”
If you would like to learn more about the history of the Holocaust there are free courses available online at Yad Vashem.