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Revisionism not remorse

Europe rewrites the Holocaust in order to revive patriotic traditions free from guilt.

numbers on an arm
Photo by: courtesy
Nearly 70 years after the massacre of more than 27,000 Jews in Rostov, on the banks of the River Don, the Russian Ministry of Culture has announced it will replace the plaque adorning the monument to the dead. But once the text of the new inscription was revealed, it became clear that this was not merely an exhibition of the low level official’s love of new unveilings and plaque dedications. Rather it was another attempt by a European state to revise the history of the Holocaust and remove the stain of genocide from the national consciousness.

The original plaque recorded the event soberly and factually as follows: “On 11/12 August 1942 there had been destroyed by the Nazis more than 27,000 Jews. It is Russia’s largest Holocaust memorial”.

The new inscription immediately smacks of the sort of flowery, bloated language of patriotism more in tune with Stalin’s Russia than with a modern state. And it foreshadowed a return to the sort of euphemisms and terms of convenience rather than truth which were a feature of the old rule – and are increasingly becoming a feature of the new.

The amendment to the text was not merely an exercise in semantics.

Firstly, the victims of the massacre were no longer Jews, rather, “peace-loving Soviet citizens of all nationalities”.

Gone too is any reference to the Holocaust. Now the massacre is described as having occurred in the context of The Great Patriotic War.

And perhaps most significantly, the perpetrators are now referred to as “occupiers” and “invaders” to stress the foreign origins of the guilty.

But how far removed this new inscription is from what truly took place at Zmiyevskaya Balka on the 11th and 12th of August, 1942.

This was not The Great Patriotic War. This was no Battle of Stalingrad or Kursk. The victims were not executed as peace-loving Soviet citizens. They were executed as Jews. And the killing squad was made up of German conscripts and local collaborators alike.

The actions of the Russian Ministry of Culture are a conscious attempt to obscure the confronting reality of Russia’s single biggest Holocaust massacre. Like all massacres of Jewish communities in foreign lands, the Germans relied heavily on local collaborators; both to identify and round up Jewish citizens and to murder the women and children if ever the Germans lost their nerve.

But by casting the massacre as a crime against “Soviet citizens” carried out by “invaders”, the truth gives way to the preferred history that the Soviet Union remained united and honourable in the face of foreign invasion. How could Soviet citizens have participated in the massacre if Soviet citizens are themselves the victims? The haunting poem of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “Babi Yar” which places the massacre of 33,771 Jews in Kiev in the context of an unbroken Soviet/Russian history of antisemitism, was deemed so provocative that it was confined to the literary underground. Particularly objectionable was Yevtushenko’s recognition of a genocide of the Jews – something the Soviet Union preferred to avoid as it could lead to the logical conclusion that such a massive undertaking could not have occurred without local assistance. Instead, the Soviet protocol was to refer to such massacres as those of “Soviet citizens” to present the illusion of a common national suffering at the hands of a common (and external) enemy. It is significant that the Russian Ministry of Culture is seeking to revive the historical distortions of its Soviet predecessors.

And so, with a few innocuous strokes of a bureaucrat’s pen, the record of the atrocity at Zmiyevskaya Balka is revised, updated to avoid an uncomfortable truth and to remove this burden of history from Russian consciousness and national pride.

The recent events in Rostov are hardly unique. As we witness the rise of economic and strategic blocs in Europe, their member states are desperately seeking to secure a national narrative that will withstand the homogenisation of the continent. A narrative based on patriotism but not nationalism; the struggle for freedom without taking the freedom of others. But the history of the Holocaust flies in the face of all that. It is a shameful reminder that not only did nations partake in the dispossession and destruction of the Jews of Europe under cover of war, but that they are responsible for creating national traditions of antisemitism without which such a thing could not have occurred. The Holocaust is an albatross around the neck of Europe it is desperate to shed.

And so, Estonians who served in the Waffen-SS are being honoured with official “freedom fighter” status as the country chooses to revere those who resisted Soviet rule while whitewashing the efficiency with which the same people destroyed Jewish life.

Lithuania has recently sought to characterize Nazi rule as a “respite” from Soviet oppression in a statement which shows utter indifference to the 212,000 Jews murdered during the clearly welcomed change of dictatorial rule. Perhaps this statement says more about the lack of Lithuanian guilt rather than any attempt to unburden the nation from it.

The Croats hold memorial parades in honor of Hitler’s emissary in the Balkans, Ante Pavelić; celebrating the Ustasha leader as a great Croatian patriot and forgiving his wholesale slaughter of Serbs, Jews and other ethnic groups unwelcome in an independent Croatia.

You can stir up far more national pride by remembering the patriot who valiantly fought to liberate his people from the yoke of foreign rule without also recalling his murder of innocent men, women and children.

The form of revisionism we see in Rostov and elsewhere presents a far greater challenge than Holocaust denial. The latter is easy to spot and condemn and is generally the refrain of hardened antisemites seeking to further injure the Jews by denying that their families ever lived and died. Revisionism on the other hand, is the work of the political and academic mainstream - as the actions of the Russian Ministry of Culture demonstrate. And because this subtle re-characterization of events does not directly deny the Jews their suffering, the revisionists are rarely challenged or condemned. In this way, the truth makes way for distortions of fact which form the basis of a new history.

The atrocities of the Holocaust stand alone in history. The six million dead were not combatants nor were they civilians caught up in the chaos of war. They were a defenseless, scattered, civilian population, hunted down and murdered regardless of age or gender, let alone citizenship or political persuasion. This is what distinguishes the Jewish dead from the other “peace-loving Soviet citizens” and this is why the true record of this crime, unparalleled in history, must be preserved in its fullest, truest, most inconvenient form, even if national pride is the worse for it.

The writer is a lawyer and founder of The Jewish Thinker (www.jewishthinker.org) a non-profit organization promoting scholarship and debate in matters affecting Jewish thought and life.


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