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The use and abuse of the Holocaust: a new international pastime

“So I was hiding out in the heap of dead bodies because in the last week when the crematoria didn’t function at all, the bodies were just building up higher and higher. So there I was at nighttime, in the daytime I was roaming around in the camp, and this is where I actually survived, January 27, I was one of the very first, Birkenau was one of the very first camps being liberated. This was my, my survival chance.”Bart Stern, Auschwitz Survivor

Alex Zeldin | artist: Noah Lubin

Alex Zeldin | artist: Noah Lubin

On January 27, 1945 the Soviet Union’s Red Army entered and liberated the remaining survivors in Auschwitz. Five years and over a million people, most of them Jews, murdered at the site and the horror of industrial genocide came to a close at Auschwitz.

But the use and misuse of the memory of Auschwitz and the Holocaust had just begun.

On Thursday, January 23, 2020 fifty world leaders convened in Jerusalem for the World Holocaust Forum to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Some, like the president of Germany, correctly used the occasion to reiterate their responsibility for the destruction of Jewish life across Europe. “The industrial mass murder of six million Jews, the worst crime in humanity, was committed by my country,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said. “The terrible war, which cost over 50 million lives, originated in my country.”

Others, like the United Kingdom, used the opportunity to promote the virtuous aspects of their nations’ legacies from the Holocaust. Prince Charles, marking his first state visit to Israel, celebrated the contributions of Jewish Holocaust survivors who came to the UK after the war as well as his grandmother’s personal efforts to save Jews in Greece. The prince closed his speech reiterating the need to learn and be guided by the lessons of the Holocaust. (Left out was any mention of the lessons learned from the United Kingdom’s own shameful policies before the Holocaust and their continuation in the years after the Holocaust, when hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors needed to be resettled.)

But as has become a habit in recent years, others used the opportunity of a Holocaust commemoration to advance their nations’ foreign policies. American Vice President Mike Pence invoked the memory of righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust when discussing Iran, a geopolitical foe of Israel and America’s whose government funds and supplies terrorist organizations and is responsible for the murder of American troops following the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

“In that same spirit [of righteous gentiles], we must also stand strong against the leading state purveyor of anti-Semitism, against the one government in the world that denies the Holocaust as a matter of state policy and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The world must stand strong against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Vice President Pence insisted.

But the main show of the day came from Russian President Vladimir Putin, which should come as no surprise: The organizer of the World Holocaust Forum is the European Jewish Congress, the pet project of Russian-Jewish oligarch Moshe Kantor, who enjoys good relations with President Putin. While other world leaders were seated, President Putin was announced separately and was personally seated by Israeli President Ruvi Rivlin.

The spectacle was enhanced by the notable absence of a high-level Polish delegation, whose government has criminalized discussion of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, prioritizing the vanity of Polish survivors over that of the three million Polish Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. It continued with the last-minute absence of Ukraine’s president, himself a Jew, who, rather than being in a photo op where Putin speaks of Ukrainian Holocaust sins, opted instead to give his delegation’s seats to Holocaust survivors.

The spectacle crescendoed with President Putin’s speech which conveniently advanced a narrative of the Holocaust that omitted the Soviet Union’s joint invasion of Poland with Nazi Germany and the nation’s post-war policy of violently suppressing knowledge of the Nazi targeting of Jews. Putin did not shy away from noting the often brutal Nazi collaborators in nations such as Lithuania, a baltic state which is currently considering legislation which would deny Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust. Conveniently for Putin’s message, Lithuania also happens to be a NATO member and opponent of present-day Russian influence in their region.

It is tempting to roundly condemn those who politicize the memory of the Holocaust for their own ends. Particularly those who refuse to take ownership of their nations’ own contributions to the murder of two out of every three Jews across Europe. Entire European nations, who once boasted Jewish communities in the hundreds of thousands, today have few or no Jewish citizens and many Jewish museums.

Indulge the temptation. But let that be the beginning of your response, not the end.

Af eyn shlog falt keyn boym nit um: A tree doesn’t fall with one blow. In the years preceding the final solution, 32 nations, including the United States and United Kingdom, met to discuss the growing problem of Jewish refugees brought on as a result of Nazi persecution. For their own individual reasons, the nations that convened at Evian concluded with no agreed upon policy for hundreds of thousands of Jews who were made stateless as a result of Nazi racial laws that disenfranchised them of citizenship.

One of many legacies of the Holocaust is how evil and single-minded hatred made into the policy of one nation is enabled by many other nations that choose to prioritize what they deem to be their own narrow national interest ahead of the persecution in front of their very eyes. The nations that did and did not come together in Jerusalem to commemorate Auschwitz may have learned the right things to say to flatter Jews, but their objectives and actions still leave much to be desired.

Alex Zeldin is a contributing columnist with the Forward.

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