Stop Denying History

On February 1, actress and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg was suspended for two weeks from her job at the long-running talk show, “The View,” over remarks she made about the Holocaust on the January 31 show and later that night on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” 

Goldberg said repeatedly “The Holocaust isn’t about race. No, it’s not about race.” As her co-hosts on “The View” argued back, seemingly stunned, Goldberg continued, insisting that the Holocaust was “not about race, but about man’s inhumanity to man.” 

That Goldberg made the comments on International Holocaust Remembrance Day added to the outrage from viewers and others, including Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, who spoke to her directly about her words. 

Whoopi Goldberg has co-hosted “The View” since 2007. She is one of only 16 entertainers to win an Emmy Award, a Grammy Award, an Academy Award and a Tony Award. She has hosted the Oscars four times. She is a legend and an iconic figure, instantly recognizable and one of the most prominent political voices on TV. Which is what made her words so upsetting to so many people and the calls for her to be fired so immediate. 

Contrary to what Goldberg said, the Holocaust was indeed about race. The Nazi’s “Final Solution” was devised to exterminate all Jews from the planet. The Nazis declared Germans were “racially superior” and worked to create a “racially pure” state. Jews were deemed an “inferior” race and a threat to German racial purity.

By the time allied forces liberated the concentration camps throughout Europe, more than six million Jews had been murdered — a third of the world’s Jews at that time. From 1933 to 1945, Nazi Germany operated more than a thousand concentration camps on its own territory and in parts of German-occupied Europe. The first camps were established in March 1933 immediately after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.

Hitler announced the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. These racial purity laws claimed that “Jews were a race defined by birth and by blood” and that they were an “inferior race,” tainting German bloodlines, which Hitler wanted purely Aryan. Jews were required to wear yellow stars that signaled them as Jews.

While this controversy may have begun with Whoopi Goldberg’s disturbing words, it’s not just about her. She apologized on Twitter and on “The View” itself. The time-out that ABC gave her is clearly to avoid the firing that viewers were calling for and people who love and admire her will forgive her on her return.

The broader point raised by such a public disavowal of the cause of the Holocaust and it being specific to the Jews speaks to a much more complicated issue: Americans’ categoric lack of knowledge of history and the efforts being made nationally by the Republican party specifically to eradicate the teaching of any history that positions white people in a bad light. Even, apparently, if that white man is Hitler. 

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Abraham Gutman, a colleague on the Inquirer editorial board, wrote about the impact of the Holocaust on him and his family. “I wrote about my great Uncle, Mishka, who was robbed from me by the Nazis — most likely in a horrific massacre that you’ve never heard of,” Gutman wrote.

He continued, in a lament as painful as the Kaddish, “I grasp for him. I want to know him. But there is no one to ask. That pain won’t go away.”

Gutman is “haunted by the possibility that the little he knows about his relatives that died in the Holocaust is all that there’s left to know.”

Hugo Rifkind, a writer for the London Times, wrote a long Twitter thread about a woman killed in the Holocaust — a Polish Jew, a poet and journalist, who was seven months pregnant when the Nazis invaded. Rifkind begins, “It’s Holocaust Memorial Day. This year, I’m thinking of a woman called Sulamita Szapiro.” There is a photograph of a pretty and serious-looking young woman attached to his tweet. “Here she is as a student. We weren’t related and I don’t even know much about her, but I’m pretty sure that remembering her still falls to me.”

Lily Lipiner, an 88 year old Holocaust survivor, tweeted, “This photo is of my Jewish preschool class. It was taken on Purim. I’m next to my best friend Rachel — we decided to both wear Mushroom-pattern dresses. Everyone but me (and my sister) in this photo died in Auschwitz.”

There are perils to eliding history that go well beyond philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote about being doomed to repeat what we don’t remember. 

Members of my mother’s family died in the Holocaust. They were Scandinavians married to Jews. My mother referenced them often when I was a child, but I didn’t know then how much I would need the specifics later. And now I know nothing about them because I failed to get their histories from my mother and grandmother before their deaths. This fact, this not-knowing, is both maddening and heartbreaking — as are these stories of Mishka, Sulamita and her unnamed baby, and Lily’s unnamed girlhood friends.

We owe it to the victims of genocide — be it the Holocaust, American slavery or the mass murder of Native Americans — to bear witness to that history with honesty and truth. It’s critical that we not make this a story about Whoopi Goldberg, but that her revelation that she doesn’t understand what the Holocaust was about be a place to open the conversation about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism. The rise of anti-Semitic attacks, like the hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, on January 20, is fed, as Greenblatt has explained, by not addressing the history of and breadth of anti-Semitism. 

White nationalism is a threat to all marginalized groups in the U.S. That includes all people of color, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people — all the people white nationalists want to eradicate, as their Nazi forebears wanted to eradicate the Jews.

Make this a teachable moment. Don’t use it to demonize Goldberg nor to minimize the lasting impact of genocide. All of us who belong to marginalized groups in a society that is still driven by white supremacy owe it to ourselves and others in those groups to fight back the best way we can: with the facts of history and with the truth of our dead.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.