When remembrance fails

The memory of the Holocaust is serving the opposite purpose east of the Elbe.

poland chief rabbi 29888 (photo credit: Channel 2)
poland chief rabbi 29888
(photo credit: Channel 2)
Since 2000 anti-Semitism in Western Europe - and the Muslim world - has virtually monopolized the agendas of the Jewish defense agencies, but recent events in Poland, Croatia, Lithuania and Romania seem to indicate that we should start paying more attention to what is happening in Eastern Europe. And while it has been well known for years that Jew-hatred continues to be a serious problem in Russia and the former Soviet republics which have not been admitted to NATO and/or the European Union, it is generally assumed in Israel and the West that those countries which have achieved membership in those bodies, or are close to obtaining entry, have fully adopted liberal and democratic norms, leaving behind their centuries-old anti-Semitic traditions and prejudices. So the following incidents probably come as a surprise to those unacquainted with the current situation. IN LATE May, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, was physically attacked by extremist Polish nationalists on a main street in Warsaw while walking home from Shabbat services. Two weeks later, under the exact same circumstances, Rabbi Zvi Aloni was physically accosted by Croatian neo-Nazis in the center of Zagreb, not far from the synagogue and local community headquarters. In addition, the community received an e-mail in which a Croatian student from Split threatened to blow up the community center with the help of Hamas. Less than two weeks ago, on the weekend of June 23-25, about 20 tombstones were vandalized in the main Jewish cemetery in Vilna. Less than a week before this incident, a pre-trial investigation was launched by the Office of the Prosecutor-General of Lithuania against none other than Dr. Yitzhak Arad, former chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, on the suspicion of war crimes committed while serving with Soviet anti-Nazi partisans in World War II. In Romania, right-wing newspapers have falsely accused Marco Katz, director of the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, of threatening the lives of an Orthodox priest and his children to force the removal of a statue honoring World War II dictator Marshal Antonescu who was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews. THE COMMON denominator of all these recent incidents is their link to the Holocaust and the local anti-Semitic traditions which spawned active complicity by the local population in the murders. Thus the date on which the cemetery in Vilna was vandalized is the day of the Nazi invasion to Lithuania which Lithuanians mark as the beginning of their ostensible (and in fact practically nonexistent) resistance to the Soviets, while for Jews who refuse to celebrate, it marks the onset of the annihilation. Rabbi Schudrich was attacked by Poles yelling "Poland for Poles," the slogan of the anti-Semitic prewar political power called the National Democrats (Endecja), whose hostility to their Jewish neighbors was a contributing factor to the relatively limited assistance extended by Poles to Jews during the Holocaust. Rabbi Aloni's attackers yelled the standard Nazi call of Juden Raus (Jews out!), and in the case of Arad it seems fairly clear that the charges against him are a direct response to his recent expert testimony against Lithuanian Nazi war criminals. Thus the memory of the Holocaust, which in Central and Western Europe continues to serve as an antidote to anti-Semitism and racism, is serving the opposite purpose east of the Elbe, where post-Soviet and post-communist regimes were only able to honestly face the complicity of their nationals in Holocaust crimes after achieving independence and/or democracy. THIS DEVELOPMENT also forced them to face the practical issues related to their Holocaust history which have proven to be extremely unpopular. National leaders were called upon to acknowledge guilt and apologize for crimes (usually to the State of Israel), and governments were expected to commemorate the victims, prosecute the perpetrators, accurately record their Holocaust history, return confiscated property and introduce the Holocaust as part of the school curriculum. Two factors, however, made the implementation of these tasks particularly difficult. The first was that the local population in every one of these countries had actively assisted the Nazis in the mass murder of the Jews. The second was the rapidly growing awareness of the importance of the universal significance of the events of the Holocaust and the increased sensitivity to Holocaust-related issues in NATO and the European Union. These factors made it virtually imperative for the post-communist countries, who more than anything else sought membership in these bodies, to ostensibly accept the obligation to address their Holocaust past despite their lack of ability, and the absence of local political support, to do so. Fifteen years of independence later, therefore, relatively little practical progress has been made. While many of the leaders of those countries have apologized for local participation in Holocaust crimes - usually in Israel, not at home - and made declarations which ostensibly obligate them to deal with all the practical Holocaust-related issues, very few Nazi war criminals have been prosecuted and in countries like Lithuania, one of the few to convict, none of those convicted have been punished. Appreciable progress has only been achieved on the relatively easier tasks such as commemoration and documentation, and even those are politicized with every effort made to minimize local complicity. We are seeing initial educational efforts (with assistance and pressure from abroad) but most of these activities appear to be the exclusive domain of government bureaucracies with little internalization of the lessons of the Holocaust by the wider public, many of whom remain entrenched in their anti-Semitic prejudices. This is clearly evident from the responses posted on the Internet in response to all these issues. Clearly the pressure brought to bear on these countries - and especially that of Israel and Jewish organizations - has fostered dangerous anti-Semitic continuity. UNDER THESE circumstances, the events of the past two months are hardly surprising. In fact, if they are not dealt with promptly and stringently by the local authorities, they will only encourage additional anti-Semitic incidents. But it must be clear that the physical violence and vandalization of the past two months are only the tip of the iceberg of unresolved Holocaust issues that continue to cast their ominous shadow over Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Thus until more serious progress is made by post-communist countries in honestly facing their World War II past, we are likely to see even worse manifestations of these deeply ingrained problems. The writer is Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center..