This year’s Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) has come only weeks after we learned that the Polish government will seek extradition of 95 year old Michael Karkoc of Minnesota, for ordering mass killings of Jews in Eastern Poland. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has criticized Poland for a lack of effort in hunting and prosecuting Nazi war criminals and it appears that in the case of Mr. Karkoc, Poland is stepping up and taking action. When critics claim Mr. Karkoc is too old to stand trial, an official with the Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish Nation responded with, “Some say that it’s too late to hunt the criminals down, but I don’t think it is,” he added. “The case of Michael K. proves that. Besides, try telling it’s too late to a woman who as a girl was hiding in a field, watching her parents being executed.”
As the population of remaining survivors becomes smaller with each passing year, so do the perpetrators that remain at large in our world, living amongst us, yet to face justice.
But one example of this that sticks out to me is of someone who has not and perhaps can not be prosecuted, someone of power and position that has managed to avoid justice, even after his death. In 2016, a statue was unveiled at the center of Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan. The unveiling took place amidst significant fanfare, attended by Armenia’s president, government ministers, ruling party leaders and members of parliament. It is a statue of Garegin Nzhdeh - an Armenian nationalist, revolutionary fighter, and war hero. He also happens to be a Nazi collaborator.
Nzhdeh created the infamous Armenian Legion, approximately 30,000 men, and made them available to the Nazi command during World War II. As part of German Wehrmacht, the Armenian Legion fought in the Crimean peninsula and in the Caucasus, as well as in southern France, further assisting the Nazis by rounding up Jews and other ‘undesirables’ behind the German army as it swept across Russia, and organized death marches to concentration camps.
Beyond the statue, a square and metro station in Yerevan are also named after him and his “legacy” is taught to children in Armenian schools. It is taught that he fought for the country, and any sins he committed are ultimately inconsequential, or worse, justified. Deputy Speaker of Armenia’s Parliament Eduard Sharmazanov even called Nzhdeh “a national hero” and a “patriot” who “fought for Armenian independence”. The fact that Nzhdeh is heralded as a great Armenian hero, despite that he was a Nazi, is one issue, but that today, this fact can still be overlooked, even by the Armenian President, is even more worrisome. In the case of Mr. Karkoc of Minnesota, however delayed justice may be, there is a straightforward understanding of the evil nature of the crimes he is accused of committing. With the statue of Nzhdeh, the very opposite is true. Government-celebrated Nazi war criminals should be an oxymoron, especially for a country that asks the world to recognize a genocide of their very own people. I suppose it is unsurprising to mention that the Anti-Defamation League found that 1.3 million out of 2.2 million adults in Armenia hold anti-Semitic beliefs, making Armenia the second most anti-Semitic country in Europe. Whether a Nazi is living or dead, it is too late for their victims. As we commemorate the 11 million people that were murdered by the Nazi regime, we must continue to push forward for justice and truth from all areas of the world. No amount of time or nationalistic coverups can erase what was done to so many innocent people, and those survivors left in the world have less time to witness justice than ever before. As we remember the victims, survivors and heroes of the Holocaust, may we also pray to bring to light more evidence, truth, justice and reparations - for those that survived and for the memories of so many that did not.