Deborah E. Lipstadt: Genocide's Toxic Legacy

[Deborah E. Lipstadt is a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University. This essay is adapted from her book, The Eichmann Trial, to be published next month by Schocken Books.]

...Deep-seated hatreds, whether inculcated from youth or adopted later in life, can lead a seemingly normal person to commit horrendously abnormal acts. The trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the "chief operating officers" of the Holocaust, laid out in full graphic relief the lesson of what happens when anti-Semitism or, for that matter, any virulent enduring prejudice becomes an accepted norm.

In contrast to the Nuremberg tribunals, where the murder of the Jews was treated as a sidebar—one example, among many others, of crimes against humanity—the trial of Eichmann, in Jerusalem, placed the attempt to annihilate European Jewry front and center. The other striking difference between Nuremberg and the Eichmann proceedings was that at the former, the prosecution relied almost exclusively on documents and called few survivors to give testimony. In Jerusalem, on the other hand, more than 100 survivors testified. They had spoken before, but never had their words received such media coverage....

It is not just in relation to the Holocaust that deniers try to ply their wares. Whenever deep-seated prejudices encounter inconvenient history, there will be those who will try to deny or discount that history. That is what the Turks have done with the Armenian genocide. The toxic legacy of denial was brought home to me in an encounter I had a number of years ago at Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial in Jerusalem to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. While there I met a group of young Rwandans. They had come to be trained in how to conduct oral testimonies with the survivors of the 1994 genocide that had decimated their country. Anxious to ensure the Rwandans' comfort, and aware that their lingua franca was French, Yad Vashem had invited a group of French and Belgian Holocaust survivors to join them for dinner. By the end of the dinner, the two groups of survivors had bonded so strongly that the elderly survivors took the young Rwandans under their wing, invited them to their homes, introduced them to their families, and began to build personal friendships.

One afternoon I sat with some of the Rwandans outside of Yad Vashem looking out over the Judean Hills. They told me of their experiences during the genocide. They also related that now certain Rwandans, particularly those associated with the murderers, were denying that the genocide had taken place: "They claim this was not genocide. They argue that it was simply an expression of age-old rivalries. Just a tribal spat. They deny and dismiss what was done to us."

When the conversation turned to the training the Rwandans were receiving at Yad Vashem, I was again reminded that one of the most potent antidotes to the denier is the voice of the survivor. One young man, whose entire family had been murdered, said to me: "I want to tell my story and help my fellow Rwanda survivors tell theirs. Just like the Holocaust survivors. I want people to listen to me as they listen to them. It is the only way the world will believe."...

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