On the occasion of the completion of the Greek presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) on February 28, the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Ellen Germain, visited Athens, Thessaloniki and Kalamata, where she took part in Greece’s international IHRA conference.
Speaking to ANA during her tour of the Jewish Museum of Greece, Ms. Germain expressed her satisfaction, noting that Greece and the United States “cooperate in various fields, one of the most important being IHRA where both are proud members.”
Referring to the reasons for her visit to Greece, Ms. Germain stressed that “the focus of the Greek IHRA presidency” was “to promote education and memory of the Holocaust,” something that Greece has been doing for a long time, having a leading position with regard to the introduction of Holocaust education, which has been in the Greek curriculum for 25 years, and something that does not happen in all countries.”
“So my goal here is to learn more about how Greece remembers and educates about the Holocaust and to find more ways in which the United States and Greece can work together to address newer threats such as distortion and denial.” She added, “In this context, we are working, for example, to develop educational materials to help teachers better understand how to detect and address Holocaust distortion and denial, and to teach their students how to do this.”
Ms. Germain pointed to other avenues of cooperation between the United States and Greece, such as the agreement signed by “the Greek government and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an agreement under which the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will be able to share files from the Greek history of World War II. This means that digitized files will be available worldwide through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.”
As Greece seeks to retrieve items from the Athina ship carrying Jewish refugees that sank during World War II, Germain said the United States “hopes to borrow some of the items to present them and explain the story. Because a lot of what we can do together, Greece and the United States, is to tell the exact story of the Holocaust. There is so much disinformation and misinformation these days.”
“It is so important to tell the exact story and tell it to the younger generations who have no personal connection to World War II, the Holocaust and often have no chance of meeting a survivor. Research shows that it’s one of the best ways for people to really understand the horrors of the Holocaust, and what happened,” the U.S. Special Envoy told ANA.
“Museums here in Athens, in the United States, and around the world are trying to find ways to pass on these personal stories to future generations. One way is video testimonials that have been archived and that people can watch and listen to. There are also some very interesting new approaches such as creating digital, 3D holograms of survivors, so that, say 20 years from now, when there are no survivors left, a group of students can watch a hologram that tells the story and answers questions.”
While education may indeed be a bulwark against the spread of anti-Semitism and the distortion of history, the question remains how this extreme hatred that led to the Holocaust is fueled. “It’s a very difficult question and if we had the answer we would be much more effective in eliminating this hatred, like anti-Semitism, like racist speech. I think it is a combination of factors. It is always very easy to blame someone else for the problems, and leaders, as in Nazi Germany, find it easy to do so. You pick a specific group of people and you say they are different, they are different from us, so they are not really human. This happened in Nazi Germany. They dehumanized the Jews, the Roma, the disabled, and that led to the tragedy of the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews and millions of others,” said Germain.
According to her, education in tolerance and open societies is part of the solution, as well as the simple move of “people meeting someone in person, if not a Holocaust survivor. For example, in many parts of the United States and Europe, people have never met a Jew. They do not know, they do not realize that Jews are like everyone else, that there is no difference. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, we are all human. So, education, tolerance, striving to meet other people and having new experiences for future generations through meeting other people are key.”
“The other very important thing for governments but also for civil society, for individuals is to speak up and resist. When you hear something anti-Semitic or racist or read something, do not just let it go. I know it can be scary and it can be difficult to say something, but often that is all it takes for a person to say that a comment was really indecent or traumatic. Or ask, ‘Did you know I was Jewish when you made that comment?’”
“Speaking and defending the right thing is a huge step because not many people do it. I include myself in this. We have all been silent when we should not have been,” the U.S. Special Envoy for the Holocaust Issues told ANA.
Regarding inclusion through the improvement of daily life of Americans but also the promotion of human rights, Ellen Germain noted that “President Biden is extremely committed to these issues, and to the issue of Holocaust remembrance, and has been so throughout his career, as well as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who is the stepson of a Holocaust survivor.”
“We are looking for ways to make society more inclusive, more open, right now in the United States because we, like any country, are struggling with our past. In our case, there is the horrible history of slavery in the United States, the history of racism. And teaching people, making tolerance a model, can only help,” said Germain.
According to the U.S. Special Envoy, similar priorities in the international arena “with Greece and other countries with common values, in every possible forum, not only the IHRA focused on the Holocaust, but also the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations – in every international forum and in every international organization, democracies that believe that human rights have value must work together to promote western values, the rule of law, and human rights. The work my office does, not only in remembrance of the Holocaust, in history, but also in promoting education, is all part of the United States’ commitment and our efforts to defend human rights. And we are always looking for partners like Greece, which, as its IHRA presidency shows, is an excellent partner on Holocaust issues.”
“Unfortunately, anti-Semitism has been on the rise internationally in recent years. In Europe, in the United States, Holocaust distortion and denial have become a growing threat, especially in the way some people use social media and the Internet,” she said. “Social media platforms and the internet alone are by no means good or bad, but people use them to spread lies about the Holocaust and to misinform. It is also easier for them to unite their voices, find each other and reinforce each other’s point of view when using social media. So, I’m focusing, we are focusing our efforts on tackling the distortion and denial of the Holocaust,” said Ms. Germain.
She added, “What can we do as a government to combat it? Much of what we can do is through organizations like the IHRA and in collaboration with other governments to raise awareness, which is part of the solution, such as good educational practices. Teaching critical thinking to children is a huge part of tackling Holocaust distortion and denial and all kinds of misinformation. Educating children and adults to think about what they read, what the source is, what it says, if it makes sense, to control the source, would go a long way in combating the misinformation out there.”
Ms. Germain noted that in late 2020, Facebook agreed to remove anti-Semitic content about Holocaust denial, but as it is difficult to detect, this does not mean that it was completely eliminated. In addition, as she said, there are “issues of freedom of speech, which we also strongly support. So how can a balance be found? These are difficult questions. This is a debate that is going on between the United States and the European Union, how we can deal with these problems, and I think we will be concerned with these questions and trying to find solutions for a long time.”
“The fact that the State Department has an office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues shows how much importance we attach to these issues. We also have an Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism with which we work very closely. I think this shows how important a priority it is for us. Our mission is to seek justice for Holocaust survivors, and I truly believe that this is a very important human rights goal,” said Ellen Germain.