THE PERIMETER fence of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enveloped in a thick evening fog during the ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, near Oswiecim, Poland, January 2018.
(photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
The arrival in Israel several weeks ago of a Polish delegation of government officials and history experts to initiate a dialogue with their Israeli counterparts regarding the new Polish law concerning Holocaust history might mark the beginning of a solution to the serious crisis in Poland-Israel and Polish- Jewish relations, but it is already clear that two cardinal issues at the heart of the debate have unfortunately not been addressed at all.
I am referring first of all to the broader issue of the rampant spread of Holocaust distortion throughout post-Communist Eastern Europe. For those unacquainted with the term, Holocaust distortion can best be defined as a deliberate and systematic attempt to rewrite the generally accepted Western narrative of World War II and the Shoa, in order to achieve two distinct aims.
The first is to minimize, or completely hide, the role of local Nazi collaborators in the implementation of the Final Solution. In that respect, we must keep in mind the very significant historical fact that only in Eastern Europe did collaboration with the Nazis include active participation in systematic mass murder, and that the assistance of local killers in the region was a critical factor in the enormous scope of the Shoa.
The second goal of those distorting the Holocaust in Eastern Europe is to promote the canard of equivalence between Nazi and Communist crimes and the fiction that Communist crimes in Eastern Europe can be categorized as “genocide.” This is clearly not the case, because only the Third Reich sought to totally annihilate an entire people, and employed industrial mass murder to do so. And although there were almost certainly more Communist than Nazi victims, had the Third Reich existed as long as the Soviet Union, I have no doubt that the Nazis would have murdered far more than the Communists.
The Polish law clearly fits into this pattern, but judging from the Israeli response, one might imagine that this was the first such incident. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, this phenomenon has existed in Eastern Europe for more than a quarter of a century, or ever since the Soviet Union crumbled.From the very outset of renewed independence, countries like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia began to change the accepted Western narrative of the Holocaust and claim that Communism was just as bad as the Third Reich.
In practical terms, their narrative not only undermines the uniqueness of the Shoa, but adversely affected all Holocaust-related issues. Thus they did everything possible to either avoid prosecuting their unpunished Nazi war criminals, or at least make sure that if they were put on trial, none of them would be punished. They consistently minimized the number of locals guilty of participation in Holocaust crimes and artificially inflated the number of their nationals who supposedly deserved to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by including cases which did not fit the criteria established by Yad Vashem for this honor. They tried to avoid restitution, or at least limit its scope, and to add insult to injury, turned murderers of Jews into national heroes, based on their role in the anti-Soviet resistance, purposely ignoring their Holocaust crimes.
Given the justifiably harsh Israeli response to the Polish law, which included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that “Israel would not tolerate Holocaust distortion,” one would assume that Israel had actively attempted to combat the phenomena from its very beginning more than a quarter century ago.
Unfortunately, however, it did not. For a variety of reasons relating to political and economic interests, Israel chose to turn a blind eye to these developments, nor was it alone in this regard. Both the United States and the European Union also for the most part maintained their silence on these historical issues.
And if the new democracies of Eastern Europe were initially somewhat hesitant to implement their campaigns of distortion for fear of jeopardizing their potential membership in the EU and NATO, once the Baltic countries for example were admitted to the European Union and to NATO in 2004, they lost all restraint.
One of the best examples would be their 2008 initiative to establish a joint memorial day for all the victims of totalitarian regimes, i.e. the Nazis and the Communists, on August 23, the day the Molotov- Ribbentrop (Soviet-German) non-aggression pact was signed in 1939. Needless to say, such a memorial day would make a separate Holocaust memorial day superfluous.
That initiative is a good point of departure for the second cardinal issue virtually ignored in Israel and elsewhere throughout the ongoing debate with the Poles, which is the relative lack of recognition in the Western world of the suffering of the victims of Communist crimes. There is no doubt in my mind that the primary impetus behind the attempts in Eastern Europe to promote the canard of equivalence between Nazi and Communist crimes stems from “Holocaust envy,” a form of jealousy not regarding the horrific losses of the Shoa, but rather the worldwide recognition of the scope and unique horrors of the tragedy, not to mention the compensation and restitution obtained by Israel and the Jewish organizations on behalf of the survivors.
In other words if Russia, which is legally the successor state to the Soviet Union, had followed Germany’s example in terms of acknowledgment of guilt, compensation, restitution and education for democracy, it’s quite possible we would not be facing the serious problem of Holocaust distortion in Eastern Europe today. Unfortunately, Russia did not do so, and the issue has reached worrying proportions throughout the region.
Until now, it has not gotten the attention it deserves, but hopefully in the wake of the controversy over the Polish law regarding Holocaust history, Holocaust distortion in Eastern Europe will finally be addressed in the serious manner that it deserves. This week’s Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism convened in Jerusalem by the Foreign Ministry with the participation of experts from all over the world would certainly be an appropriate place to start.The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His latest book, Masa im ha-Oyev (Yediot Aharonot), deals with Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes and Holocaust distortion in Lithuania.