Holocaust, Russia-Ukraine War: Paths of memory in today's reality - opinion

I suggest recoining the “Never Again” slogan into “We did it again” – as bystanders this time.

 The Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, as photographed by the author last week. (photo credit: Tomasz Cebulski/Sky Heritage Pictures)
The Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, as photographed by the author last week.
(photo credit: Tomasz Cebulski/Sky Heritage Pictures)

I was at Nathan Rapoport’s monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19, the 79th anniversary of the beginning of the uprising. At the same time, my thoughts were with my friends in the Russian-sieged Mariupol and Kharkiv. There has been fighting Mariupol for 55 days, tying six Russian operational units in an uneven fight for dignity and strategic victory in Donbass over the mutilated city and murdered civilians.

At the Warsaw ceremony, there was no declaration of “Never Again.” No one is naïve enough after Bucha. Bucha is 20 km from Babyn Yar in Kyiv and the pictures of the Russian massacres in Bucha flooding the media for the last two weeks are hard to distinguish from those taken by Johannes Hähle at Babyn Yar in September 1941. The same sand is covering the corpses.

I suggest recoining the “Never Again” slogan into “We did it again” – as bystanders this time.

The cultures of memory of totalitarian systems supported with academic research and educated into the society make a safety fuse from a gradual political and social decline into totalitarian regime again. The lack of such culture is dangerous. Suppression of fact based memory took in Russia a systemic shape while the memory of Soviet victory over German Nazism became its own aberration leading again into useful political legitimization of new Russian imperialism.

This time it took the crooked shape of corruption-ridden Putinism as the new incarnation of Stalin initiated – RUSIZM – Russian nationalism. Russia has proved again to be the empire based on lies developing its own path of Nazism – National Socialism.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the executive board of the General Procurator's Office in Moscow, Russia April 25, 2022. (credit: Sputnik/Valery Sharifulin/Pool via REUTERS) Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the executive board of the General Procurator's Office in Moscow, Russia April 25, 2022. (credit: Sputnik/Valery Sharifulin/Pool via REUTERS)

It has shown us where the selective and context deprived education of history for the sake of political propaganda is taking us into. Every genocide starts with words and Putin developed a truly Orwellian doublespeak in which the war is peace oriented special operation, freedom is slavery in the Russian filtration camps for refugees, and ignorance is strength. Yes, our ignorance is the Russia’s strength.

Unfortunately the lack of scientifically grounded, post war system of justice, able to investigate the crimes broadly and punish the perpetrators results in spread of denial and ignorance based silence. This silence makes us to be grid locked into the vicious circle of genocides. Either as bystanders, victims or perpetrators. 

THE MIMICKED and belated acts of recognition and reconciliation with its totalitarian past among European and global corporations are showing their contemporary moral inability to confront with tyrannies rising. 

They anticipate that people’s memory is short-term and we as species adjust to the next global conflict fast. Business as usual is always on the horizon. All in all, we have a historical record of adjustment and normalization of genocides that happened on our watch. There was a reason why a well-known IT company, which through the Hollerith brand facilitated the HR departments of the German Nazi concentration and death camps became the key IT player in the post-war world.

Or maybe the companies which fail to disinvest from Russia today have the historical awareness that one company, which was a key supplier of Zyklon-B gas for the gas chambers of Auschwitz, runs a brilliant business of selling home and industrial disinfection solutions in 2022. One can find the same logo (it was a bit simplified seven months ago) in the metal canisters in the Auschwitz museum exhibit and the contemporary brand online store. Best possible practice in running a business at its prime both, historically and contemporarily. 

I believe that with all the time and effort that has been put into war, Holocaust, and genocide awareness over the last decades, we are capable of prevention before the act of mass atrocity is committed. We are capable of stopping the slaughter before it is committed, rather than building superb museums in commemoration after the crime is accomplished. 

Yes, we have learned to commemorate and build museums, but at the same time, we are still not effective enough at prevention. We are stunned and speechless when confronted by the imagery of destruction coming from contemporary Ukraine. We need to find words; we have learned this language after 1945.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) was one of the key institutions working with the prime memory of the Holocaust survivors and collecting documents for the sake of building language of genocide description and recoining it into an educational narrative. Such institutions gave us the language to communicate Holocaust and genocides. We are not speechless any more. But the USHMM has not stopped there and became the institutional pioneer raising awareness and documenting the other 20th and 21st century genocides. 

It was indeed uplifting on April 19, 2022 in Warsaw to see the delegation led by the USHMM director Sara J. Bloomfield to unveil the USHMM exhibit Some Were Neighbors in one of the public squares of the city that was once destined into complete annihilation by the German Nazi and Russian Soviet totalitarian regimes. There were speeches making justice to the past, but also making sure so that the paths of history are informing the today’s reality. The least we can do to the victims of an ongoing crimes against humanity is to be aware of the victim’s fate and to speak out on facts until the survivors can speak for themselves. 

We need to build a narrative to resist the violence of Russia and the looming global indifference. I know that we are more prepared to take in those images once they are, one day in the future, an exhibit with captions in a super modern Kyiv museum of Russian war against Ukraine 2014-2022. In the future, we can devise new disciplines of education and science based on this war experience. But, now we must act so that the future museum in Kyiv has less cruel content, lower numbers and its name finishes in 2022.

The writer, who holds a PhD, is a genealogist and is author of Auschwitz after Auschwitz. He is founder of Polin Travel and Sky Heritage Pictures for narrative and visual interpretation of history of Polish Jewry and historical sites.