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I had a Holocaust-themed bat mitzvah. It might not have been a bad idea

The party favors with a barbed-wire motif were too much for me at the time, but with Holocaust revisionism on the rise, maybe I should have saved them

I had a Holocaust-themed bat mitzvah.

The official theme was rainbow pastels, which was perfectly on trend for 1983 and appropriate for a 12-year-old girl, but, unofficially, it was the Holocaust.

On one level, this made sense. It was Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance, on which Jews are commanded to read about Amalek, who slaughtered the stragglers at the back of the camp of Israelites making their way out of Egypt and became the prototype for enemies of the Jewish people throughout history. I could have given a solid bat mitzvah speech comparing Amalek to Haman (the villain of the Purim Holiday), to the Spanish Inquisition, and of course, to Hitler. Shabbat Zachor is coming up again this week, and I’m sure that many 12- and 13-year-olds are preparing to speak on that theme after they are called to the Torah as b’nai mitzvah.

However, I went beyond the standard speech. With my parents’ encouragement, I drew on the work I had done for a school project on Holocaust art and poetry. My dad had built a massive, Torah-like paper scroll onto which I had pasted text and pictures and made a soundtrack on a cassette tape interspersing sad music and recordings of myself reading excerpts of Anne Frank’s diary and poems like “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” At my bat mitzvah, I gave an encore of the readings while the cantor sang in the background.

The official theme was rainbow pastels.

Featuring the Holocaust at my bat mitzvah was a bit heavy, but I didn’t think it was strange. Just a few years before, an estimated 120 million Americans had tuned into the Emmy Award-winning miniseries Holocaust starring Meryl Streep as a German Christian married to a Jewish man.  Our suburban New Jersey JCC would soon put on its own production of The Diary of Anne Frank (starring my dad as Otto Frank).

Holocaust memorializing seemed normal and mainstream.

Then I saw the party favors with the barbed-wire motif.

My parents, who owned a business printing logos on T-shirts and hats for local businesses, Little League teams, and graduating classes, had surprised me with a special creation: puffy, sky-blue caps emblazoned with the word “Remember,” written in the same font as “Jude” on a yellow star, underlined with barbed wire.

For many years, this has been just a cringeworthy teenage memory, one of my parents’ rare but epic failures of taste. I felt personally hurt, upset by my parents’ inability to understand that their 12-year-old daughter would have preferred rainbows to Holocaust imagery.

Now, I think their choice might not have been so bad. Not only is Holocaust knowledge in the United States very low, but Holocaust distortion — excusing, minimizing, or misrepresenting the known historical record of Hitler’s genocide — has surged along with the COVID pandemic.

Politicians from Robert Kennedy Jr. to Marjorie Taylor Greene are lumping vaccines in with death camps, schools are being told to present “both sides” of the Holocaust, and a Kentucky lawmaker recently claimed that Mifepristone, one of two pills taken to induce abortion, was developed during World War II and was called Zyklon B, the gas that killed millions of Jews in the Holocaust.

Too often, discussions about Holocaust remembrance bog down in debates about whether the point of remembrance is universal or particular, whether “Never Again” means that we must guard against antisemitism or that we should stand against genocidal racism in all forms.

The answer, of course, is both. As a recent UNESCO-IHRA statement put it, Holocaust distortion serves as a bridge between mainstream and more radical ideas, including conspiracy myths, science skepticism, and distrust of democratic institutions, all of which have reached new heights during the pandemic.

Remembrance of the Holocaust should convey two messages. First, it was the epitome of an organized, society-wide attempt to wipe out an entire people. I don’t feel any need to argue that this was the only event of its kind in history. The trans-Atlantic slave trade and Chinese oppression of the Uighurs exist on the same plane of evil. It is essential, however, to make it clear that requiring masks or asking about a person’s COVID vaccination status are not at all comparable to the Holocaust.

Second, Hitler’s Final Solution targeted Jews. He also sought to destroy other populations, and his regime murdered non-Jews alongside six million Jews, but the center of his ideology was Jew-hatred. He tapped into longstanding stereotypes that portrayed Jews as simultaneously subhuman and superhuman, able to wield global control. Antisemitic tropes are dangerous, and they must be stamped out wherever they appear.

These messages are not complicated, but they are a bit too long to fit on a T-shirt or a baseball cap. It almost makes me wish I had kept one of those puffy hats with the simple slogan underlined in barbed wire: Remember.

About the Author
Gayle Meyers began her career as a policy analyst in the US Department of Defense, fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and staffing the US-Israel Joint Political Military Group. She later directed the Middle East Regional Security program of Search for Common Ground. After moving to Israel, she worked for civil-society organizations promoting regional peace and a shared society for Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. She teaches at the Machon L’Madrichim (Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad) in Israel has designed, facilitated, or participated in more than a dozen conflict-resolution initiatives. Gayle received a bachelors degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a masters degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She lives in Jerusalem with her family.
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