Monday, August 23, 2010

Remember the Holocaust and Soviet Crimes Separately

A number of European countries, under the direction of the continental wide parliament, now commemorate the crimes of the Nazis and the crimes of the Soviets together. The date designated for this is August 23, the day in 1939 when the Nazis and the Soviets signed a pact that essentially gave them the green light to gobble up most of Poland, an act which resulted in the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. This endeavor to merge the crimes of the two regimes into one common memory is deeply flawed.

Arguably, the most serious problem regarding the conflation of these two disparate histories is where the Jews fit into them. On the one hand, students of the war know that the Jews were the foremost victims of the Nazis and their partners. This is not just a matter of statistics. The murder resulted from the Nazi view of the Jews as their main and implacable enemy on racial and ideological grounds. It is an undeniable fact that the attempt to murder all Jews everywhere was helped along by not insignificant groups in the countries allied to or occupied by Nazi Germany. On the other hand in the counties that comprise the former Communist bloc, Jews are still generally regarded as the main villains who perpetrated Soviet crimes. Even though the historical record shows this to be false - for example in Estonia before the Nazi invasion of summer 1941, Jews suffered deportation under the Soviets in twelve times greater numbers than their percentage in the population - the myth that Jews as a collective collaborated with the Soviets and benefited from them at the expense of their neighbors, continues to be a truism.

The post-Communist societies of Central and Eastern Europe feel a tremendous need to commemorate their suffering under the Soviet regime and desperately want that suffering to be recognized by fellow Europeans. At the same time a minority in these societies believe they must squarely face their communities’ role in the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust era. For those, however, that would like to avoid genuine introspection the joint commemoration, of Nazi and Soviet crimes provides an extremely useful vehicle. Through such joint commemoration they feel they can admit a lesser degree of culpability in the murder of the Jews, pointing a finger at “a few extremist collaborators,” and then immediately diverting attention to the “fact” that the Jews did their neighbors much more harm than the neighbors did to them. In other words, in this line of reasoning, collaboration in the murder of the Jews was warranted.

Officially sanctioned historical distortion sets the stage for a variety of reactionary, xenophobic, racist and neo-fascist political and ideological movements to gain ground with impunity. Jobbik in Hungary is a salient example. Moreover the rise of Jobbik and similar groups represents a very dangerous trend in post-Communist Europe: the glorification without qualification of all forces that struggled for the nation and opposed Communism, and concomitantly, the denigration of absolutely everything that happened during the Communist period. The first includes lionizing those who surely fought the Communists, but often waged war alongside the Nazis as well, and even took part in the murder of the Jews. Much too frequently, such figures are seen as unadulterated patriotic heroes and their criminal acts are glossed over. By casting the Communists as an evil equal to or greater than the Nazis, no credit at all is accorded to the Soviet Union for their pivotal role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and its partners. The understanding that had the Nazis won, life under them would have been infinitely worse for the great majority of Europeans than it was under the Communists (as awful as it often was), is not only given short shrift, it is not mentioned at all. In a nutshell, fostering misshapen versions of history makes the difficult business of nurturing truly democratic and pluralistic societies in the former Communist bloc infinitely harder.

The crimes of the Holocaust and the crimes of the Soviet regime each deserve to be researched, discussed, taught and remembered. But this must be done in a way that is true to the historical record, and which ultimately serves efforts to create a better society. Thoughtful comparisons and contrasts are important for cultivating greater understanding of all historical events that have even a slight degree of similarity. Equating and merging distinct events, however, never clarifies issues. Rather the opposite is true, it obscures them under a patina of oversimplification and artificial congruity. So we must remember the Holocaust, and we most certainly should remember Communist crimes - separately - each in their own context, and with a finely tuned sense of similarities and differences, and what they mean to us.

Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries in Jerusalem, author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, Vallentine Mitchell, 2005 and a soon to be published study on Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Palestinians Learn about the Holocaust at Yad Vashem

A group of Palestinians visited Yad Vashem yesterday. Here's an interesting article about this grassroots effort to learn more about the Holocaust.

Palestinians Learn About the Holocaust at Yad Vashem

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Yad Vashem Comment Following Reports of a Fire in Majdanek

Following reports this morning that a barracks at the Majdanek camp was seriously damaged by fire last night, Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev spoke to Majdanek Museum Director Tomasz Kranz and expressed his support.

Shalev offered assistance to the Majdanek Museum, and expressed his deep sorrow that such an important site, including valuable artifacts had been damaged or destroyed. According to the Museum, some 10,000 shoes from victims of Majdanek were destroyed during the fire. “The damage to these irreplaceable items is a loss to a site that has such historical value to Europe, Poland and the Jewish people,” said Shalev after his conversation with Kranz. The cause of the fire is not yet known, and all possibilities are being investigated.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Rich Culture Remembered

Yad Vashem’s Synagogue was filled last week with Holocaust survivors from Greece and their families who gathered together for an annual remembrance day commemorating the Jews of Kos and Rhodes who were murdered in the Holocaust. They sang traditional songs in Ladino, remembering their lost communities and rich culture, listened to testimony of survivors and a lecture by Na’ama Galil about the day the Jews of Rhodes arrived at Auschwitz, and took part in a moving ceremony that including lighting the Yad Vashem candelabra. Foundation for the Preservation of the Jewish Heritage of Rhodes Chairman Mario Suriano remarked, "We have met at this holy place, Yad Vashem, in order to remember the event that shouldn't have occurred - the Holocaust. Our purpose is to remember, not to forget. To forget is to murder them once again.”

Holocaust survivor from Greece lighting a candelabra to comemorate the Jews of Rhodes and Kos who were murdered in the Shoah.

In September 1942, the Nazis conquered Rhodes immediately following their invasion of Italy. As a result of the allied bombardment of Rhodes, bombs also exploded in the Jewish quarter of the Island. A great number of Jews - among them young children, died. In July 1944, some 1,650 Jews that remained on the island were ordered to gather at assembly centers. They were then sent to Athens on two coal barges, without any food or water. The barges initially made their way to the nearby island of Kos where another 120 Jews were piled onto the barges to be deported along with the Jews of Rhodes. The boats then stopped at the island of Leros to deport the single Jewish man who lived on the island. Upon arriving in Athens the Jews were detained at the infamous Haidari and from their deported to Auschwitz. Only 180 of them survived.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

After visiting Yad Vashem on Friday, NBA star Amare Stoudemire said, "It was an incredible experience. I learned a lot, and encourage my friends and others to visit Yad Vashem as well."