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Holocaust denial

September 22, 2010

A visit to Poland by British historian David Irving, who denies that the Holocaust took place, has raised a storm of protest amongst Jewish and anti-fascist groups.

Right-wing British historian David Irving in a Vienna courtroom
Irving's denial of the Holocaust has already brought him to the courtroomImage: AP

Jewish and anti-racism groups in Poland have expressed anger and disgust at the visit by British historian David Irving, who denies the occurrence of the Holocaust during World War Two.

Anti-defamation organizations have called for Irving to be prosecuted over a controversial tour he is currently heading which questions historical facts about the Nazi death camps on Polish territory.

Irving has already visited Poland a number of times, touring former Nazi death camps where millions of Jews were put to death during World War Two. Each time he has raised eyebrows among those Poles who still remember the war by questioning established facts about the Nazi genocide, for instance the role of gas chambers at death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Controversial argument

But this time, Irving's visit has provoked uproar. The historian has organized the first in a series of paid tours of former death camps and will deliver talks that attempt to pick away at the history of the Holocaust, addressing, for example, the Treblinka death camp north-east of Warsaw, where the city's 400,000 Jews perished.

Jews being taken from the Warsaw ghetto and transported to Treblinka
Many Jews were taken from the Warsaw ghetto and transported to TreblinkaImage: picture-alliance / dpa

What Irving tries to achieve in this case is to create an impression among his listeners that Treblinka was a labor camp rather than a death camp. He argues it was a place where inmates were held in barracks to perform manual work for the Third Reich.

"At Treblinka, you can see the foundations are still there," Irving says. "There were obviously quite big huts: the Jewish labor camp, the Jewish women's camp, the family barracks. It rather raises questions in my mind."

Historians point out, however, that virtually all Jews taken to Treblinka by train were instantly gassed, then their bodies were incinerated and the ashes scattered in the nearby woods.

Another of Irving's remarks - that places like Auschwitz were built by Poles for the purpose of Holocaust tourism - has also caused widespread condemnation. At one point, Irving compared visiting one of the camps to a Disneyland experience, with Poland benefiting from the number of tourists exploring the sites.

Anti-Irving movement

Among the organizations that have called for Irving to be prosecuted for Holocaust denial is Nigdy Wiecej or the Never Again Association, which brings together anti-defamation and anti-fascist campaigners.

"It's a disgraceful trip. I see this as an affront to those who were killed by the Nazis and an attempt to wipe out their memory," said Never Again spokesman Rafal Pankowski.

Women prisoners line up for a hard labor assignment at the Auschwitz concentration camp
Women prisoners were made to do hard labor at AuschwitzImage: AP

"This kind of propaganda can be dangerous, because it can influence those young people who do not know very much about what happened during World War Two, or confirm the views of those who subscribe to conspiracy theories spread by the neo-Nazis on the Internet," he added.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau museum is one of those institutions that have made it clear they will not allow Irving's guided tours on their premises, as museum spokesperson Bartosz Bartyzel explained.

"He is free to visit the museum, but any attempt to spread the Auschwitz lie is a criminal offence," Bartyzel said. "It is pointless to enter into any polemics with someone who questions the authenticity of documents which the Auschwitz Museum has on display in abundance."

Tragic memories

Bartyzel is, however, aware that the living memory of what took place during the Holocaust may not survive much longer, because Holocaust survivors who are still alive are now in their late 80s and 90s.

Zsuzsa, an 89-year-old Hungarian Jew, is appalled by Irving's attempts to question what she experienced. In Zsuzsa's opinion, the only way to counter such lies is for her to recount the many horrifying incidents she experienced, such as the instant gassing of Jewish infants on arrival in Auschwitz.

A column of people walking through the grounds of the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz
Every year people come to Auschwitz to mark Holocaust Remembrance DayImage: AP

"They took us to Auschwitz. We knew what happened in Poland and we knew it was very bad," she said. "They opened the cattle car and said ‘fast, fast, fast'. There were those men in stripy prison uniforms.

"I remember a friend of ours had a baby on her arm, and the man told her to give the baby to somebody, so she did, because she thought he meant well. When she found out that her baby was gassed she almost went crazy."

Holocaust survivors like Zsuzsa visit Auschwitz on a regular basis to let younger generations know what really happened there. They are hoping that even when they are no longer around, their voice will continue to sound louder than that of David Irving.

Author: Rafal Kiepuszewski (dfm)
Editor: Susan Houlton