The Dangers of Denial

I had the moment of realization when I was fifteen.  I had just returned from my two week trip to visit the concentration camps and I was sitting in my grandparents house recounting the stories of my trip.  They asked which camps I had visited and I dutifully went through the list “Auschwitz, Birkenau, Plashow, Majdanek, Sobibor…” But then I was interrupted by the giggles of my eight year old cousin.  “Those words sound funny.  What are they?” There was a long pause and someone explained that they were just the names of places I had visited in Poland.  There was a collective decision that she was too young for the truth.  But by the time she was old enough most Holocaust survivors had passed away.  That day I came to understand that in my lifetime Holocaust denial would become easier and more common.

Now in the face of the worlds problems I consider myself a relatively calm person.  I have spent the past ten years hearing survivors stories, reading testimonies, reviewing evidence, and visiting genocide memorials.  I have become accustomed to spending my days with some of the ugliest parts of humanity.  I am continually impassioned by my work, but I am rarely angry.  But time and time again the denial of mass atrocities angers me in a way I struggle to articulate.  My body is consumed with the anger that people are denying these events and the fear that their opinions will become common place.

I am brought back to this anger by a recent google search.  My mother is a high school teacher and she is giving a presentation to her students on the Holocaust.  She needs photographs from the Holocaust and asked me to compile those I thought were most compelling.  With certain images in mind, I took to google with a list of key words.  For every ten images I found, there was one image of Holocaust denial.  Then half the image sources came from denial websites or blogs.  I had chosen to forget how widespread this problem is. Spending my time in the academic community, it is easy to forget what “truths” are googelable.

Any person in the world can go online, read these websites, and interpret it as the truth.  Sadly this is a piece of mass atrocity and genocide prevention that often goes un-disscussed.  Typically there are three stages of conflict: the warning, the execution, and the aftermath.  The aftermath, however has an expiration date, and soon enough the international community is on to the next problem.  There is a very precious window after a conflict, when the survivors are still alive and able to tell their stories.  This presents two problems: survivors must be psychologically safe to tell their stories and there must be the resources to collect them.  Sadly these qualifications are not often met.  Many Holocaust survivors did not begin to tell their stories until thirty or forty years after the Holocaust, once they could gain emotional distance.  Survivors of Srebrenica, Rwanda, and Cambodia have not had the same international encouragement or support to tell their stories.  As a result important parts of history follow these people to their graves.  Collecting first hand accounts is one of the key modes of denial prevention – create overwhelming evidence that these events truly happened.

Denial is a process that comes after the aftermath of conflict.  Once the bodies have been buried, the ceremonies conducted, and the reparations paid, there is a silence, a moratorium on the tragedy if you will.  The survivors try to move on to their “new lives” and the deniers have a space to start writing their own version of history.

To me, denial is one of the most vile and offensive crimes.  It completely invalidates the experiences and struggles of survivors.  It tells Holocaust survivors that the endless billows of smoke, the piles of bodies, the years of starvation, and the final conversation with their families were imagined.  It tells survivors of Armenia that the death marches were really “friendly relocations.”  It tell every person who persevered through violence, who survived rape and beating, who stared down death, and who wished they could have died to save their loved ones that they are worthless.

Denial is the final emotional violence of genocide and one that we cannot tolerate.  It is a fruitless effort to argue with every denier, to try to quiet them, or remove their pages.  Instead we must make our voices louder and clearer in the annals of history.  We must be secondary witnesses, committing to memory stories of the survivors we know, and carrying them to the next generation.  So in twenty years, when a person says, “Corie, what is Sobibor, or Auschwitz, or Majdanek?”  I will show them the stone I have from one of the barracks at Auschwitz, I will tell them about my friend Judy, and I will refuse to let genocide denial be part of my future.

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