Early last month, while conducting research for a paper I am writing on the social history of Auschwitz, I was using the online library services at York University where I am presently a graduate student whose research focuses on the field of Holocaust Studies. To my utter dismay, the first source that appeared when I searched Auschwitz on the school’s library system was entitled Auschwitz: A Personal Account and was attributed to Thies Christophersen. While the title of this work appears innocent, its author is anything but. Christophersen was a member of the SS and served in the vicinity of Auschwitz during the Second World War. Following the war, Christophersen became a noted denier of the holocaust and member of various anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi parties in Germany. After spending his later years moving around Europe he was deported from Switzerland for his dangerous views. He was a witness for the defense during the prosecution of famed Canadian holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. His book is a form of vitriolic Holocaust denial and of repugnant anti-Semitism. Needless to say, I was concerned to see the aforementioned publication was available online to all members of the York University community.
The work in question was originally published as The Auschwitz Lie in 1973 in German and 1974 in English. It was republished in 1979, however in an act of subterfuge the title title was changed to Auschwitz: A Personal Account. This title, in my opinion, only enhances the grotesque nature of the blatant denialism and anti-Semitism contained between its covers. Such a mundane title, one designed to bring an air of authenticity to a fictitious narrative, asserts that its author is writing from bona fide experiences and shames the very real and powerful narratives of actual survivors of the horrors of Auschwitz.
Thies has been censored in his native Germany where his publication has been barred since the early 1990s from being disseminated to children and youth due to its heinous content. The forward by Manfred Roeder is considered an affront to the nation’s laws outlawing the incitement of hatred for its anti-Semitic tone. A quick word on Roeder, he was labelled a domestic terrorist in his native Germany in the 1980s. The result of crimes, including murders, attributed to the neo-Nazi “German Action Groups” which he led, carried out against foreign immigrants to Germany.
So, back to my night of researching. After confirming that the book in existence was exactly what I had expected it to be, as I have only previously heard of the original title, I decided I had to take some form of action. That’s actually a minimizing obfuscation. Every inch of my skin was crawling and the natural advocate in me was raring for action. This, and it pains me to call it a book, I prefer printed smut, really is that gruesomely anti-Semitic. The cover page of the 1979 rendition, translated from the original German, reads, “An unbiased eyewitness report on the real life in a concentration camp there were no gas chambers!” The character of both Thies and his publication are not in dispute, both are proudly and unashamedly anti-Semitic and personify dangerous polemic denialism. I proceeded to reach out to the university’s library asking for something to be done.
I was dismayed when the university’s library refused to take immediate action and rather chose to offer me a Zoom meeting instead. I appreciate the need to balance the needs of students of all creeds and beliefs with those of a modern and progressive university library. I have spent a significant amount of time at York University, having attended the institution to obtain my undergraduate degree and now to complete my Masters. While I have been privy to the occurrence of shameful acts of anti-Semitism that have scarred the face of the campus, I myself have never been the subject of any direct attacks for my faith, likely due to my secular appearance and my not traditionally Jewish last name. None the less, I have spent enough time in academia, and have dealt with enough tenuous situations at other universities, to know that anti-Semitism, especially in its more passive forms, is constantly rearing its ugly head on North American campuses.
The library has a responsibility to the greater institution that funds it, but it also has a duty to ensure that the rights of its students are not infringed by its attempts to ensure the proliferation of intellectual and academic freedom. The work of Christophersen being available for use by academics engaging in studies related to anti-Semitism and holocaust denialism is a necessity. We cannot hide from the evils of our past, just as much as we cannot ignore them. However, the existence of the title, as part of the general online collection at York University without any recognition of the harmful content contained within its pages is an untenable occurrence.
I was aware of York’s strong position regarding libraries and intellectual freedom. The library’s webpage proudly indicates its admirable desire to acquire as expansive a collection as is possible. It further states the library’s adherence to the Canadian Federation of Library Associations’ Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries’ guiding principles pertaining to Freedom of Expression. As a result, I was not optimistic, when asked to attend a meeting with members of the library administration, that my needs a Jewish student would be properly balanced with the library’s desire to furnish for its community as many resources and perspectives on as many subjects as was possible.
It is worth noting that the same issue presently exists at the University of Toronto amongst other institutions and that there is a greater issue involving the publisher of the collection which contains the text. The text should simply not be offered as a component of such a widely distributed and broad ranging collection of primary sources. As stated, there is merit to making such a resource accessible, but it is far to caustic to be included in a group of resources meant for general circulation. Inclusion in a collection of primary sources that are expressly identified as works of Holocaust denial would be the proper means through which to make such a contentious resource available to researchers who need it,
The universities in question lack the agency to act in a manner that would enable the removal of the publication from circulation. Freedom of expression and intellectual freedom aside, they are parties to incredibly intricate contracts with publishers. They pay for access to materials, but do not always have full control over how these materials are presented, what meta data is attached to the publications, which collections they are included in, and the general proliferation of a specific component from within a larger collection. A university library cannot unilaterally pick and choose what components of a collection they will and will not make available to their students. Doing so would violate their agreement with the content provider and the university requires these corporations to ensure that its collection can be maintained.
As a result, it was highly unlikely that York’s library would be able to accommodate my request that the work of Christophersen be pulled from general online circulation. The work is part of a larger “stand lone” collection, offered by the well known educational publisher Gale and containing over half a million pages of content. The collection, titled Political Extremism and Radicalism: Far-Right and Left Political Groups in the U.S., Europe, and Australia in the Twentieth Century is part of the primary source offerings offered by Cale. Gale is owned by the larger educational content provider Cengage, which reported a revenue of 1.3 billion dollars at the end of its 2020 Fiscal Year. Gale and Cengage control the content of their offerings and are ultimately responsible for what gets disseminated in them. While one could argue that the University was overwhelmed by the quantity of materials it received as part of the collection, the same cannot be said for the publisher. It is their job to review and curate the items they offer for sale. It is important to remember that Cengage is profiting directly from the sale of this work of hostile anti-Semitism and blatant Holocaust denial.
Now, to the mitzvah component of my narrative. I met with Patti Ryan, who works with the library’s content development and analysis department, and with Dr. Jack Leong. Dr. Leong is the library’s Associate Dean of Research and Open Scholarship. Admittedly, I did not expect much to come from this meeting and was initially hyper emotional. However, with the assistance of the immense patience and sincere understanding of Mrs. Ryan and Dr. Leong, a meaningful solution was reached. While the school was powerless to remove the individual source without catching the ire of the publisher, they were determined to ensure that the continued presence of the material in question in their online catalogue did not offend the Jewish members of the York University community.
Within a few hours, a “local note” was added to the system. This notation is visible and essentially must be read by anyone who attempts to open the text to read it. It is concise but pointed and ensures that all who glimpse it are left with no misunderstandings of exactly what this text is. It reads, “This book is a work of holocaust denialism, written by noted holocaust denier Thies Christophersen. It is part of a digital collection of racist and fascist materials preserved in the Searchlight Archive. The Archive contains a significant body of material documenting the activities of fascist and racist organizations”. Such a simple act, yet such a profound mitzvah.
You may ask why this is such a mitzvah? Well, in the era of BDS movements and the Proud Boys, an institution working admirably to help combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism in an objectively clear manner that sets a precedent not only for its own library but for those at other universities across Canada should not be taken for granted. This simple note can now be used in the future to ensure that any other works of denialism are properly identified. So yes, it is the opinion of this author, that in a world where within the living memory of survivors of the holocaust major academic content providers feel it is acceptable to include the works of members of the SS who violate the memory of the over 1 million human beings brutally dehumanized and murdered at Auschwitz in the packages it sells for Universities to distribute to the next generation of young scholars amongst works on political radicalism, that the Jewish community can use all the help it can get.
York University’s library team stepped up to the plate. But this isn’t over yet. The work of Christophersen continues to sit unmitigated in the physical and digital collections of universities around the globe. It is time for these school’s to follow York’s lead and immediately take steps to ensure that those in their community who wish to interact which such a resource are aware of the denialist and anti-Semitic content that lies within its pages.
The real potential for change is in the hands of Gale and their parent company Cengage. The work in question does not fit within a collection devoted to discussing 20th century political radicalism. It does not discuss or serve as an archival resource of value for those who wish to study fascism. It is not evidence of the views of Christophersen or his compatriots before, during, and or after the war. Christophersen did publish politically minded works. What was Originally titled The Auschwitz Lie is simply not one of them. It is nothing more than fictitious anti-Semitic trash and it is time for Gale and Cengage to throw it out of their collection.