On this day 69 years ago, soldiers of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front pried open the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and were greeted as liberators by the 7,000 or so emaciated prisoners who were among the walking dead remaining within the camp at war's end.
The liberation of Auschwitz — that chamber of horrors where more than a million Jews from across Europe were consigned to death in the gas chambers — was the first tangible step toward a fuller reckoning of what the Nazis had achieved in the relatively short span of just over five years of war.
Today, we mark the liberation of Auschwitz with a day devoted to memorializing the monumental human tragedy we now know as the Holocaust. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a relatively new observance, having been voted into existence by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005. As time passes and memory fades, such commemorations will surely play an important role in ensuring that the memory of the Holocaust is not forgotten.
It is a day more necessary than one would automatically assume. There are numerous threats to the memory of the Shoah. Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites have posited that the camps were a fabrication and that the numbers of dead inflated. Historical revisionists, most recently in some European nations, have attempted to rewrite history to escape blame or to point the finger at others.
Another growing threat to the memory of the Six Million is when the Holocaust becomes grist for inappropriate Nazi and/or Hitler comparisons. Particularly in the United States, Holocaust trivialization has seeped into the mainstream.
It has become the political weapon of choice to roll out the Nazi and Hitler analogies. Take the debate in America over gun control legislation. In the past year we have seen a proliferation of remarks comparing gun control legislation in the U.S. to policies upheld by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
National pundits and others inside and outside of politics have compared the issue of gun control in the U.S. to actions taken by the Nazi regime. Earlier this month, for instance, rock musician and gun advocate Ted Nugent compared film producer Harvey Weinstein to a Nazi propagandist, staging that those who watch Weinstein's planned film about the National Rifle Association "will see that Joseph Goebbels and Saul Alinsky is alive in the form of a fat punk named Harvey Weinstein."
Last June, an MSNBC pundit characterized Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's vote with the majority overturning a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as, "A symbolic Jew has invited a metaphoric Hitler to commit holocaust and genocide upon his own people." And more recently, a state representative in Arizona referred to President Obama as "Der Fuhrer" and went on to say in a newspaper interview that "America under Obama is looking a lot like the early days of Germany under Hitler."
There is an epidemic of invoking offensive Holocaust analogies in discussions of controversial subjects. Such comparisons have been used by both Democrats and Republicans on a number of issues, and by numerous public figures when discussing topics ranging from abortion to animal rights to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to LGBT rights. We even witnessed a spike in offensive Holocaust analogies following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Not only is analogizing the Holocaust a threat, but by trivializing and making light of the Holocaust has become all-too common in popular culture and the public square.
At an awards ceremony in September for GQ's Men of the Year, the British comedian and actor Russell Brand shocked fellow celebrities by pointing out that the fashion firm Hugo Boss designed uniforms for Hitler's SS. Brand told his audience, "If anyone knows a bit of Holocaust history and fashion, you know it was Hugo Boss who made uniforms for the Nazis. But they looked (expletive) amazing." He then put his finger under his nose to portray Hitler's trademark moustache and goose-stepped across the stage.
Joan Rivers — of all people — last year commented on a dress worn by German supermodel Heidi Klum with the suggestion that, "the last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens."
Now that 69 years have passed since the liberation of Auschwitz, the danger is that an overuse of words — and inapt comparisons — will contribute to a lessening of the true impact and meaning of the Holocaust.
It must be our commitment to remember and to constantly speak out against those who would trivialize, distort or deny the Holocaust and to inoculate the public against trivialization through education.