Sunday, November 29, 2009

Reflections on the Demjanjuk Trial - 2009

The Demjanjuk trial is opening tomorrow in Germany. Unquestionably trials centered on crimes committed during the Holocaust serve as significant forums for bringing the history of that era to the public’s attention. They provide an opportunity to highlight not only events but to explore society-wide and individual responsibility for the atrocities that were committed during the Holocaust. Such trials remind us of the cavernous pitfalls inherent in eschewing basic moral norms to achieve ideologically motivated goals. The scourges of antisemitism, racism, xenophobia and uninhibited hatred, which lie at the heart of the Holocaust, come to the fore in these trials, reminding us why pluralism is invaluable to the health of our societies.

The very fact of the trial raises several important questions. Is it reasonable to try a man, aged 89, who was already tried in Israel for his role in the Holocaust and found not guilty? The answer is yes. First of all there can be no statute of limitations on crimes committed as part of the Holocaust. Regardless of a suspect’s age, if he is accused of such crimes and there is enough evidence to bring him to trial, a trial must be held. As to having been tried in Israel previously: John (Ivan) Demjanjuk was tried as Ivan the Terrible, a vicious guard from the Treblinka Extermination Camp. During the course of his trial in Jerusalem and the appeal, it became clear that there was a certain element of doubt regarding his identity, and that he might not be Ivan the Terrible. The trial, however, did make a strong case for him having been a guard recruited by the SS. There remains a serious body of evidence that Demjanjuk served, in among other places, the Sobibor Extermination Camp. He is now being tried as an accessory to murder of some 27,000 people in Sobibor.

Another issue that is being much discussed in light of the Demjanjuk trial concerns the question of Holocaust remembrance. Some are asking if this will be the last high profile trial of a Nazi war criminal? Of course given the age of most surviving war criminals from the Holocaust era, there probably won’t be many more such trials. There are some trials and investigations pending, however, among them the case of Sándor Képíró. Képíró, an officer in the Hungarian occupation forces in the area of Novi Sad (Újvidék) took part in the massacre of over 1000 people, among them 700 Jews, in January 1942. A court in Hungary soon after the end of the war tried Képíró in absentia and found him guilty, but he was never caught and made to serve his sentence. There are efforts under way to convince the Hungarian authorities to try him again, this time in his presence.

Another question the Demjanjuk trial raises is: if this is the last high profile trial concerning the crimes of the Holocaust, will the memory of the Holocaust and possible lessons we may derive from it fade away? The short answer is probably not. So much has been done and is being done to ensure that the history of that period will continue to be taught and that the events and their repercussions will continue to remain in public consciousness, that it is unlikely that that even without future trials people will forget about the Holocaust.

The challenge for educators, however, is not only that the Holocaust should remain in public consciousness, it is, that people should gain more than a shallow understanding of it. A deeper knowledge is necessary to guard against the flagrant manipulation, instrumentalization, trivialization and relativization of the Holocaust. These are real and present dangers to both the memory and understanding of the Holocaust.

Dr. Robert Rozett
Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries
November 29, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Fascinating New Memoir of Life in the Ghetto

A Physician Inside the Warsaw Ghetto, 1939-1943

by Mordechai Lensky

In this fascinating first-hand account, Mordechai Lensky, a Jewish doctor in the Warsaw ghetto, struggles against all odds to provide medical care to a community condemned by the Germans to squalor, disease, and death. Lensky’s observations on the ghetto are both sympathetic and sober. He does not gloss over difficult subjects, such as the fact that some of the doctors became corrupt and callous. Lensky himself keenly felt the tension between his moral obligations as a respected professional and his human desire to provide for his family and survive the war. The memoir also provides singular insights into many aspects of ghetto life, including an important account of a hitherto neglected aspect of Jewish resistance-the massive building of bunkers in late 1942 and early 1943.

The Lensky family escaped the ghetto in March 1943 and hid on the “Aryan” side of Warsaw under assumed identities with the help of two Polish women whom Yad Vashem has recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

The book also includes an insightful, moving epilogue by Lensky’s son Yaacov, who relates his own fascinating story in the Warsaw ghetto, the Polish Uprising in August 1944, and more.
In Mordechai Lensky’s assessment, “Warsaw’s Jews lost their lives in three ways: as martyrs of faith, as martyrs of their nationhood and as martyrs for their families.” Most were of the last sort, he says, martyrs for their families, whom they would not abandon. The survival of this family is one testament to that.

The book was published as part of the Holocaust Survivors' Memoirs Project, a special initiative to collect and preserve the autobiographical accounts of Holocaust survivors.

The book can be purchased online for $21.00 including shipping, or directly from the Yad Vashem Publications Department at

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Sober Assessment

Originally appeared in Haaretz, November 13, 2009

By Robert Rozett

The celebration is over and the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has come and gone. Now is the time for more sober assessments. Especially regarding the place of the Holocaust in much of the former Communist bloc, some serious issues remain to be resolved.

In the search for a useable past, dissidents, anti-Communists and nationalists are generally regarded as heroes. In some cases, they are genuine. Andrei Sakharov comes to mind as one such courageous individual who fought for freedom at great personal risk and is worthy of emulation as a humanist. Others, however, may well have strong anti-Communist credentials, but fall far short of displaying the kind of humanism embodied by Sakharov. During the Holocaust era, some of these so-called heroes took part in the persecution and murder of their Jewish neighbors, and others. Despite this, they are frequently glorified as patriots and paragons.

Father Josef Tiso, the head of the Slovak puppet government established through Nazi Germany in early 1939, is a clear example of a figure that has often been adulated in spite of his crimes. Tiso presided over the first, at least nominally, independent Slovak entity, and for this he is commonly revered. The regime he headed, however, played a crucial role in the murder of Slovak Jewry. The same could be said of Ante Pavelić, leader of the Croatian Ustaše government, another Nazi puppet that engaged in wholesale murder. Although such men were fervent nationalists and anti-Communists, they can hardly be regarded as patriots, since they fostered the murder of their peaceful, innocent neighbors. Not all people living in the former Communist bloc have fallen into the trap of lionizing such criminals. But significant elements either through ignorance or meanness of spirit have.

Among some in the former Communist states, the reaction to the Communist period has led to the opposite extreme. The glorification of Nazism and Fascism has found significant and vocal adherents. The extreme right, which promotes a racist, xenophobic and antisemitic agenda, regularly uses Nazi and Fascist symbols, images and language. Whether the Magyar Garda in Hungary or neo-Nazi skinheads in the former Soviet Union and other countries, they make the news and in so doing have become part of public discourse, and sometimes have even entered the political arena. In societies that committed crimes in the name of such ideologies, it is hard to accept that these hateful ideas have surfaced again. Even more baffling is how in the former Soviet Union, where the war against the Nazis was dogged and vicious, the Nazis are glorified by some of the new generation. These young people apparently live in splendid ignorance or callous disregard of what their parents and grandparents actually experienced.

Lastly comes the conflation of the crimes of the Nazis and Communists. Although both systems committed mass murders in an overlapping timeframe, they were different. Vastly different ideologies motivated them. And they chose their victims for widely different reasons. There is no question that the crimes of both are worthy of discussion, research and commemoration. But when melded together, the distinctions between them blur and blurred distinctions do nothing to further our understanding. They neither do honor to the memory of the victims nor ensure that the responsible are held accountable.

The way Jews are sometimes seen when the two crimes are melted into one is a salient example of what can occur when distinctions are blurred. The Jews were the Nazis’ foremost victims and in the lands dominated by the Nazis, many local residents played a role in their murder. In much of the former Communist bloc, where so many Jews were murdered under the Nazis, the idea that “Jew” equals “Bolshevik” is deeply entrenched. Thus Jews are often regarded as the foremost agents of Communist crimes, even if history shows this to be false. Conflating Nazi and Communist crimes, thereby, allows people to avoid taking responsibility for their society’s role in Nazi atrocities. They say to themselves: we might have had a hand in killing some Jews, but the Jews made us suffer much more.

The adoption in Europe of August 23, the day the pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was signed, as a day to commemorate the crimes of both regimes, has given the obfuscation of a multifaceted history a patina of official sanction. Instead of pandering to such distortions, European leaders should be leading a crusade to educate the public. Only through knowledge is there a chance to correct widely held misconceptions and learn to sidestep pitfalls on the road to perfecting the democracies that emerged after the Berlin Wall collapsed.

Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, and author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, Vallentine Mitchell, 2005

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau to Speak at Special Event Marking 71 Years Since Kristallnacht

Join us on Monday, November 9, for a special event marking 71 years since the Kristallnacht pogrom. There will be a special evening service (Ma'ariv) at 5:15 p.m. in the Yad Vashem Synagogue, followed at 5:30 p.m. by an address by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council. The event will be in Hebrew. The Yad Vashem Synagogue contains Judaica from destroyed synagogues of Europe. The event is open to the public, but space is limited, so please RSVP: 02-6443769

About Kristallnacht
On November 9, 1938, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against the Jews in Germany and Austria. In the space of a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish. The event came to be called Kristallnacht (“Night of the Broken Glass”) for the shattered windowpanes that covered German streets.

Also marking Kristallnacht, a unique online exhibition, It Came From Within offers information about this pivotal event and includes video testimonies of survivors, archival photographs and Pages of Testimony, all offering first-hand information and insights into the destruction and suffering inflicted on the Jews of Germany and Austria 71 years ago.