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That War, 60 Years Later

The leaders of more than 50 nations representing some half the global community, including virtually every country in Europe as well as Japan, China, the United States, Canada and Israel, will gather in Moscow next week to mark the 60th anniversary of the Nazi surrender that ended World War II in Europe. The May 9 ceremony will cap three days of events, including high-level arms talks and a European economic summit along with elaborate war commemorations featuring thousands of aging veterans from around the world.

Like the parallel assembly in Poland in January that marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Moscow gathering will serve as a watershed of sorts, reminding the world that the generation that lived through those earth-shaking events is rapidly passing from the stage. The current round of memorials will likely be the last major assembling of living witnesses to the European horrors. From this point on, their memories are bequeathed to their heirs, and to posterity.

Moscow is said to be putting on its best face for the historic gathering, sweeping the streets, festooning its public buildings and rounding up the usual terrorism suspects. Russia is hoping to showcase its new, post-communist status as a full member of the community of nations. In a larger sense, it wants to remind the world of the debt owed to the old Soviet Union for its role in that war.

It’s worth remembering. Two-thirds of the German army’s divisions were deployed on the Eastern Front, facing the Soviet forces. Half the war’s 40 million casualties were Soviets. The German-Soviet war was, in a real sense, the main event.

It’s worth remembering, too, because of what it teaches us about the meaning of that war. Too many of us have forgotten, or never understood, the vastness and the fraught stakes of the global conflagration. It’s become fixed in our memories as a simple contest between good and evil, in which the good guys won and the evil ones met their just punishment. With that as our model, we’ve taken to making every new confrontation into a morality play with only one acceptable outcome. But life isn’t that simple.

In fact, that war was not simply a showdown between good and evil. It was a war of decent humanity, ranging from the noble to the deeply flawed, against an enemy whose unparalleled depravity made every other consideration secondary. The Nazis were defeated by a fighting alliance that ranged from Churchill’s Tories and Roosevelt’s Democrats to Stalin’s Communists, an army of saints, ordinary sinners and not a few scoundrels. They were fighting not for democracy or freedom but for something more basic: the very soul of humanity.

Looked at in that way, the Russians will be seeking next week not to re-enter the human family but to remind us that they’ve been a part of it all along. Compared to World War II, we’re reminded, the U.S.-Soviet Cold War was a family feud.

For Jews the events are an important reminder that we, too, are part of the human family. The unspeakable cruelty that was visited upon us by Hitler’s minions was a uniquely demonic war within a larger war. The American, British and Soviet soldiers who saved the human family from the Nazi darkness saved our own family from utter extinction.

Our scholars and community leaders have spent much of the past three decades probing the wounds, showing how much more could have been done to save Jewish lives had the rest of the world known more and cared more. Much has been unearthed, and someday the lessons may be learned. Over the next few days, though, the right thing to do is to stand together with the rest of humanity, our fellow saints and sinners, and be grateful that our side won.

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