Friendships painful yet worthwhile

No one understands better than the countries of East Central Europe the historic lessons so often forgotten further West.

November 3, 2008 21:10
Friendships painful yet worthwhile

trostsy luxemburg. (photo credit: )


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VILNA, Lithuania - More than 60 years after World War II ended and almost 20 years after the Iron Curtain fell, Israel and the Jews must complete another peace process. A swath of countries in what is now called East Central Europe have emerged from decades of horror. These stretch from the formerly Soviet-occupied Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, through the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland and Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. Each of these countries is distinct, but for most of modern history they were the dwelling places of Jews as well as the sites of the Holocaust's most horrible events. Today, unhealed wounds remain, as well as great possibilities for friendship built on common allies, enemies, societies and worldviews. No one understands better than these countries the historic lessons so often forgotten further Wdest. They comprehend the reality of dictatorship and fanaticism; they know that threats to wipe them out should be taken seriously. It's harder for them to think the age of aggression is over, or to expect that appeasement will dissuade tyrants. Their people don't take freedom for granted; they know some things are worth fighting and dying for. They are, in short, natural allies for both Israel and the West, not only in a strategic sense but also to provide a reality check for suicidal ideas now taking hold in too many places. But there is at least one issue standing in the way of that relationship: the shadow of the past. For many of these lands were also strongholds of anti-Semitism. Caught in the '30s and '40s between the Nazi anvil and the Soviet hammer and sickle, some deemed Hitler the lesser of two evils. All European countries had collaborators with the Nazis, but toward the East they seemed more numerous. To make matters worse was the involvement of nationalist anti-communists (now seen as heroes) in pro-German activities, including the murder of Jews. Consequently, there are tendencies in some places to not fully acknowledge their own citizens' role in atrocities. These painful issues must be dealt with. Many members of my family were murdered by Latvian SS units; others were saved by Belarusian villagers and Red Army partisans. All these countries had people who acted bravely, while others were too blind, fearful or powerless. We should also be aware of the sufferings of these other peoples in the face of war, Nazi occupation and Soviet control. In Belarus, for example, casualties among the non-Jewish population were particularly high. The story is emotional and complex. There were pogroms and hatred - as in Western Europe - but also long periods of beneficial coexistence. Within each state there were struggles and debates; negative stereotypes don't do justice to these realities. In Belarus, the government holds major events about the Holocaust, and sponsors Jewish festivals. Poland has entered an age of almost unprecedented fascination with the Jewish aspect of its heritage. In Lithuania, the Foreign Ministry houses a large photo exhibit on Israel, which officials view on a daily basis, and there are courses on the Holocaust. Czechoslovakia's aid in 1948 played a critical role in Israel's creation, and the post-communist government in Slovakia has returned Jewish property, while its museum on World War II is very clear on the collaboration of that country's fascist regime. There is a huge accumulation of effort and warm sentiment. Still, it's disconcerting to visit the remarkably moving genocide museum in Vilna, which focuses on Soviet mistreatment of Lithuanians but barely mentions the "other" genocide in that city. It's painful to hear from one of the remnant in a Slovakian town of neighbors' antagonism, to the point where Jews fear to reveal themselves. Do Slovaks view the collaborators as heroes? As in other countries, there is heated debate on among different political streams. THERE IS also another aspect of the 20th century's tragic history that is far too often forgotten in the West: that of communism's crimes against both Jews and their neighbors. Next to the Holocaust - even if a distant second - communism was the greatest tragedy of modern Jewish life. In the USSR, communism destroyed tens if not hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. In Vilna, the communist regime bulldozed the Jewish cemetery and used its tombstones to build stairs. Two of the Jewish Bund's leaders were turned over to the Nazis, who murdered them. During the 1960s and 1970s, the USSR was the source of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda that continues to echo today. The involvement of so many Jews in the communist movement - to the detriment of their people and sometimes at the cost of their own lives - was a mistake of historic proportions. When a poor Jewish wagon-driver was deported to his death in 1940 for the "crime" of carrying hay to the Polish army, all the Soviet secret police officers who signed his death warrant had Jewish names. The careers of such people as Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg should not be viewed as some romantic struggle for social justice so much as a gigantic disaster that led to totalitarian regimes and mass murder. The amnesia over communism has huge implications, making it possible for so many Diaspora Jews to confuse liberalism with leftism, or conservativism with fascism. This is especially dangerous at a time when historic patterns have reversed, and the Left is the source of the most dangerous anti-Semitism, albeit cleverly concealed. JUST AS the Jewish embrace of Russia, Germany or Hungary inspired hatred, arguably now the same can be said for an embrace of America or Western civilization in general. As once the Jews were despised for being liberals, socialists or communists, those faithful to their community are now raising antagonism by being seen - falsely - as right-wing (or, more accurately, as not left-wing enough). Formerly, Jews were mistrusted as non-Christian, while now they are mistrusted for being too friendly with Christians. Most of these historic factors were strongest in Western Europe. Today, however, the new anti-Semitism is far less appealing for those in East Central Europe. The huge price those countries paid in the communist experiment should be fully understood by the Jews, including the huge numbers of Ukrainians who perished in man-made famines, the deportations of 10% of all Lithuanians, the Hungarian freedom fighters of 1956 and their Czech counterparts of 1968. Thousands of Polish officers and leaders were murdered by the Soviets in the Katyn forest. And when the Polish underground rose up in Warsaw, the Soviet army waited until the Nazis crushed it in order to make their own takeover of the country easier. TO TALK about these things doesn't take away from the Holocaust's importance, but rather further exposes why it happened. There should not be a competition in victimhood, but a strong alliance of those determined not to let such things happen again. Toward this end, the extraordinary bravery of ordinary people resisting both of the 20th century's totalitarian dictatorships and eventually triumphing should be celebrated everywhere in the West. Why are people who enjoy the benefits of Western democracy wearing Che Guevara T-shirts instead of ones emblazoned with pictures of Lech Walesa, Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov or many others? Where are the Hollywood films, the novels and school courses about that oppression and struggle? To acknowledge the persecution of Jews in these lands alongside the assault on their neighbors' rights seems a way of reclaiming our common history. Virtue, the world all too often forgets, comes not so much from having suffered but from having learned.

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