US Holocaust envoy: Shoah is an ‘American issue’

People look at Bosnia and Rwanda and wonder why we didn’t learn its lessons, State Department’s Douglas Davidson tells ‘Post.’

Kissinger 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Kissinger 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
It wasn’t the kind of remark you’d expect to hear from a German-born Jew who as a teenager had to flee Nazi Germany to America, but earlier this week former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger was in the news for something he said in private to president Richard Nixon 37 years ago.
“If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern,” Kissinger was quoted as telling Nixon in a recently released recording.
“Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
Kissinger: Gassing Jews would not be a US problem
Douglas Davidson, the US envoy on Holocaust issues, was careful on Monday to disassociate the State Department from the controversial comment made by its former head, saying it did not correspond with its current policies.
“The Holocaust is an American issue, obviously; that they have someone like me with a title of special envoy on Holocaust issues [testifies to that],” he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post in Tel Aviv. “I have a counterpart who is a special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism. Things have changed since the 1970s. Most of what I do is a legacy of what happened during the 1990s, lawsuits that were filed and agreements that were reached. So there’s been an evolution in the West like there was an evolution [in the way the Holocaust is seen] elsewhere and here, I imagine. Once, people didn’t want to hear so much about it.”
Davidson, who is currently in Israel for the Plenary Meetings of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, a three-day conference in Haifa that started Monday, mentioned that before he was appointed to his position last spring he had been involved with US policy in the former Yugoslavia – an experience that he said had some relevance to his current job.
“There’s a big discussion right now for what lessons the Holocaust has for the prevention of genocide, and people look at Bosnia and Rwanda and wonder why we didn’t learn the lessons of the Holocaust,” the career diplomat said.
Although it’s been 60 years since Nazi Germany was defeated, there is still much that remains unresolved for Jewish survivors and their kin. For instance, property worth billions of dollars which belonged to those killed by the Nazis and their allies has still not been returned to Jewish hands.
“A good deal of attention is focused on Poland, which lacks a private property restitution law,” Davidson said.
“There’s a second problem that Jewish communal property has been restituted [at] a much slower pace in comparison to the Catholic Church, which has gotten virtually all its property back. The whole process is grinding to a halt because of a scandal in the restitution of Catholic property, which is affecting not just the Jewish community, but the Greek Orthodox and other restitutions.” Davidson said he was also closely following developments in other Eastern European countries like Romania, Ukraine and Latvia, where he said the restitution process had either halted or was moving forward at a slow pace.
While the US has without a doubt taken a leading role in obtaining compensation for victims of the Holocaust, Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said it needed to do more to oppose efforts to equate crimes of communism with that of Nazism.
Zuroff mentioned the Prague Declaration of 2008, a manifesto signed by Eastern European intellectuals and right-wing politicians, as an effort to minimize the scale of local collaboration with Nazis by tying the murder of Jews to resistance against communism.
“The Prague Declaration is not a government declaration, but mostly one signed by central and Eastern European intellectuals, including the one Jewish member of the Lithuanian parliament who is on the foreign relations board, so in that sense, diplomatically, it has been hard to be vocal about something that is not an official government statement but to focus on restitution and remembrance,” he said.
He pointed to the Teresin Declaration, a guideline for Holocaust restitution signed by dozens of countries in 2009, “hosted by the Czechs in Prague but done at US instigation,” as a “significant” instance in which the US had succeeded in advancing Jewish causes while remaining practical.
“We don’t want to diminish that people suffered under the communist yoke, but to compare it with what happened under the Shoah, that’s where we draw the line,” he said. “In Vilnius, there is what locals call the genocide museum, which is where the KGB used to be.
The US embassy is very careful to call this the KGB museum.
In small and large, we try to distinguish between the two.”
The Claims Conference, which is the body charged with distributing billions of dollars in compensation that Germany has given to survivors, is one of the most important organizations in the field of Holocaust reparations.
Last month, defendants were charged in a US court with defrauding it of some $42 million. Davidson, who works closely with the Claims Conference, said he saw no foul in their treatment of the affair.
“They did exactly the right thing when they discovered the fraud, and went directly to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and cooperated,” he said. “The US attorney for the southern district of New York has brought charges. Maybe we’re a litigious society, but this will all be coming out in court. As far as I can tell, they did what they had to do in this case.”
Others have criticized how the Claims Conference allocates its funds, claiming the organization is hoarding money instead of handing it out to needy survivors, and that its executives receive excessive salaries. But in Davidson’s admittedly “biased” opinion, the organization is being run efficiently.
“I can’t speak for the pace in which they do it, but they deal with vast sums of money, and I met a lot people who are very pleased with what they do,” he said.
“Recently I visited the Satmar haredi community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn and met with six women who survived Auschwitz, and each is dependent on payments for medical care... no human organization is perfect, but the staff I deal with is very dedicated, they take themselves seriously.”