Last summer, I visited the Ravensbruck Concentration camp, a site about an hour’s train ride north of Berlin. After a few hours of touring the facility, I checked my phone for recent news stories, and, to my horror, watched from Germany the profane processional in Charlottesville, Va.
American Nazis were chanting “Blood and Soil,” and “The Jews will not replace us,” just as their Nazi forbears did in the 1930s.
America watched the brawl that ensued between the alt-right groups and the counter-protesters, some of whom called themselves Antifa, meaning the anti-fascists. At a culminating moment in this confrontation, an alt-right supporter drove his car into the crowd and a woman, Heather Heyer, who was protesting peacefully against the Nazis, was killed.
Last weekend was the first anniversary of that march.
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Today, Hilton Head faces the challenge of confronting the presence of such hatred in our community. Michael Santomauro, a Holocaust revisionist, has filed to run for Hilton Head mayor. The implications of that election may well impact the quality of life in the Lowcountry, including the economic and cultural foundations of Hilton Head’s world class reputation for tourism and as a place where diverse peoples can live comfortably.
Charlottesville is no longer an academic matter. It is now a real- life issue for us on the island. It is critical that we realize that the presence of a Holocaust revisionist in our community is not just about the Jewish people. Hatred, in whatever clothing it dresses, is about all people of color and religious faiths.
After Charlottesville, we heard comments from elected officials, clergy and other public voices, some inspiring and others repulsive.
So what should this generation of Americans learn from Charlottesville and the presence of Nazism in our great country?
First, that hatred is still a communicable disease, a social virus that infects too many Americans who worship the false gods of racial hatred and religious bigotry.
Second, that our parents and grandparents fought in World War II against Nazism and for freedom in the world. This newest version of American Nazism espouses a myth that Adolf Hitler and his cohorts were heroes. This counter-narrative glories in the principles of Nazism and connects it to a larger movement that opposes the basic moral foundation of American democracy.
The third lesson that Charlottesville exposed is that an entire cottage industry, devoted to challenging the historical authenticity of the Holocaust, has arisen and is gathering strength. We have watched as it has taken shape, with fake experts who claim that the documented killing of Jews either never took place or was greatly exaggerated. Publishing houses and organizations online have mushroomed and spread the ultimate lie, which is that the Holocaust is “fake news.”
Some terms used to characterize these absurd beliefs are “Holocaust Revisionism” and “Holocaust Denial,” and those who promote these narratives spend their lives trying to convince Americans and the world that the Jews lied about the Nazi’s “Final Solution.”
The revisionist scheme is not so much to deny the existence of concentration camps, but, shrewdly, to raise questions about whether the genocide of Jews and other minorities ever really happened. It is a subtle and nuanced strategy to convince the American public to question the Holocaust in a way that they never would have before. Their aim is to undermine the public’s faith in the established history of the Holocaust and recast it as the biggest lie in human rights history.
The fourth lesson is what to do when a Holocaust revisionist operation comes to our community. Should our community stay silent? Should we avoid calling out this behavior, saying, “Don’t rock the boat and just let it pass.”
Some say by publicly condemning voices supporting Holocaust denial, we are, in fact, strengthening their cause — rather than marginalizing them — by giving them greater publicity.
The truth, however, is that silence solves one problem and also creates another.
Community silence validates the perception that such people have a valid and defensible point. Must we, then, be prepared to pay the possible short-term price of empowering these rogue hate groups by exposing their lies and their hatred?
I say yes.
The fifth lesson is that condemning Nazism in whatever form should never be seen as entirely a Jewish issue. History has told us that not all victims of Nazism were Jewish, even though all Jews were Hitler’s intended victims. Charlottesville taught us that those alt right American Nazi marchers not only hate Jewish people but also despise all nonwhite races and their religious communities.
If these people rewrite the truth about the Holocaust, just imagine the next truth that they will distort and deny about other ethnic and racial groups in our nation.
Are we making a major mistake, then, if we think that Holocaust revisionists are only targeting the Jewish people? Is it naive to imagine that Americans might now be increasingly receptive to the argument that the Holocaust never really happened?
And within our own community, would we be willing to remain silent or downplay the significance of such beliefs and elect a Holocaust denier to the mayoral office? Is that the message we want to send to the world about what Hilton Head is really like?
The business community, elected officials, government, nonprofit groups and the faith communities will have to decide where they stand.
Their answers will determine the future of Hilton Head and the Lowcountry.