The Genesis Prize and the Holocaust

As a young girl growing up in Iran, I never learned about the Holocaust — the tragedy, the genocide and the incomprehensible inhumane way in which six million Jews and five million other people were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. I grew up in post-revolutionary Iran, in a country run by mullahs and religious clergy. The Iran that I knew under the Islamic law, was very different from the Iran where my parents grew up, under the Shah.

Growing up,  I watched as my father would listen to the news on his small radio catching the waves of the latest happenings from Israel and the rest of the world, trying to hear through the static in order to decipher what he could.

Every evening after dinner he would fumble with the radio, trying to catch the best frequency to hear the uncensored news broadcast from Israel for the Farsi speaking population. This was the only way to get the authentic news – the truth that the Islamic government did not want us to hear. This little radio was the only means we had to learn what was really happening in the world, as opposed to the whitewashed version broadcast on the Iranian television network.

Every spring, for reasons I did not quite understand, my father would gather our family together and light six candles, asking for a minute or two of silence. His explanation was simple: “This is in memory of the Jews who died.” I never knew what that meant. The truth is, I never even asked him what happened or to which Jews he was referring to. It was a ritual we followed every year, no questions asked, no explanations given. None were needed. Something terrible had happened to some Jews, somewhere, and we stood together in memory of them.

I lived in Iran until the age of 12 and I never heard the world Holocaust. But my father knew. Through his handheld AM radio, he knew that there had been a tragedy that had taken the lives of so many Jews, and we had to do our small part in keeping that memory alive. My father taught me that what happens to one Jew, is happening to all and that we must always stand up for one another, always stand up to hate

Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, was my first introduction to the Holocaust. By the time the movie was released I had already been living in the United States for almost two years. At the age of fifteen I had yet to read any books about the Holocaust, and did not know much about the details of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany against six million Jews and five million other innocent people.

The movie, which I have now watched countless times, was my introduction to a realm of hateful behavior I had never imagined possible. I watched the screen through tear filled eyes, the images blurry, as I tried to come to terms with what I saw before me. The movie left me a changed person. For days and weeks afterwards, every time I heard the somber soundtrack created by Isaac Perlman, two wet strands would cover my cheeks — the feeling fresh in my soul.

The education that Steven Spielberg gave me in those three hours was more informative and impactful than any I received over the years in so many classrooms. He opened my eyes to a level of evil so unbelievable, so unreal, so unfathomable, that I would at times wonder, is “Never Again” truly possible?

But in one sweeping motion, Mr. Spielberg also gave me hope. He made me realize good people, the likes of Oscar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, Irena Sendler, and Chiune Sugihara existed. People who gave hope to humanity and who will always be here to stand up to hate and to fight evil. People who would be willing to do whatever it takes to help those who need it the most, no matter the odds or the cost.

This year, Steven Spielberg won the coveted Genesis Prize (the award nicknamed the “Jewish Nobel”). His prize is something to be celebrated by all Jews, all Holocaust survivors and all those righteous non-Jews who risked their very lives to save those who were powerless in the face of absolute evil.

In spite of these brave people and others like them, we are now dealing with Holocaust deniers, a new type of neo-Nazis. In 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said the Holocaust was a legend fabricated by the Jews to protect Israel, I laughed. I thought, “The man is crazy. Of course no logical person would believe him, his lies, or his propaganda.” I was wrong. In addition to white supremacists who take pride in Hitler’s work and who celebrate his birthday, we now have the deniers from the extreme left and right who are singing a new tune – different, but just as toxic.

Holocaust denial, unlike “flat earth” theories, is harmful, not amusing. Their perverted and false view of history should not have a large impact on our society but, unfortunately, it does. This denial flies in the face of basic logic. As the Holocaust is one of the best documented genocides in the world, one would hope the deniers would not have far reaching effects. In 1996, world famous Holocaust denier David Irving sued historian Deborah Lipstadt in an English court for libel, for characterizing some of his writings and public statements as Holocaust denial. She won the case. Others with similar views, such as Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the labor party in the United Kingdom, who has repeatedly refused to connect the atrocities of the Holocaust to anti-Semitism or Jews, are a danger to us.

Holocaust deniers view the Holocaust as debatable history and subject to change, to be redefined, and as a conspiracy theory that must be fought.

With the production of Schindler’s List and subsequent audio-visual chronicles of The Shoah Foundation, Spielberg has truly done holy work in preserving the memory of the Holocaust. The Foundation has one of the largest digital collections, with more than 112,000 hours of testimony about the Holocaust experience and other subsequent genocides.

Awarding the Genesis Prize to Steven Spielberg is meaningful for this one reason. The countless interviews that he conducted will last lifetimes – for our children, their children and their children’s children to watch, – and are a priceless gift that he has given to all of humanity. The work that he did in the spirit of “Never Again” is holy work – truly God’s work. In a time when Holocaust deniers and white supremacists feel more emboldened than at any other time in history, Spielberg’s work takes on more urgency and importance and must praised and never forgotten.

About the Author
Aylin Sedigh grew up in Shiraz, Iran. She immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve. She is passionate about raising awareness about Mizrahi Jews and their trials and triumphs. Her goal is to open the conversation about the sacrifices that Mizrahi Jews had to make in order to survive the oppressions of the governments which they lived under.
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