Poland’s brazen decision to pass a law protecting Holocaust denial should come as no surprise. Three years ago, the international community was largely silent when the government of Ukraine passed similar legislation. Today, we’re witnessing the fruits of that silence.
In 2015, Kiev ratified memory laws which made two WWII-era paramilitaries — the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) — national heroes of Ukraine. The OUN had collaborated with the Nazis, while the UPA massacred Jews and Poles on its own accord.
Poland’s law will make it illegal to claim Poles participated in the Holocaust; Kiev’s 2015 laws made it a criminal offense to disparage the “heroism” of Ukrainian butchers of Jews. Unlike today’s furor over Poland, however, Kiev’s actions were met with mostly silence. Several Jewish organizations issued press releases, but there was nothing from the EU, the U.S. State Department, or Congress.
By 2016, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, which is spearheading the OUN/UPA glorification, redoubled its efforts. A particularly reprehensible example came during the 75th anniversary of the 1941 Babi Yar massacre, where the Nazis, aided by Ukrainian nationalists, gunned down 33,000 Jews in two days. The weeklong commemorations included a stand honoring Ivan Rohach, editor of the nationalist Ukrains’ke Slovo. Rohach’s paper ran front page headlines such as “Jews are the greatest enemy of humanity.” To put this in context, imagine seeing an exhibit to the Taliban during September 11 commemorations at Ground Zero.
Yet major Jewish organizations, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the World Jewish Congress, attended the events, giving Kiev’s actions their tacit approval. The one notable exception was Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, who publicly demanded Kiev stop whitewashing Ukrainian nationalists during a speech to the Ukrainian parliament.
The West wasn’t always silent about Ukraine’s Nazi collaborators. In 2010, the EU as well as several U.S. lawmakers vehemently denounced Kiev decision to give OUN/UPA leaders Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych posthumous honors. (The awards were quietly annulled). But when Kiev aggressively renewed its whitewashing five years later, the West stayed quiet.
Why did this happen? Politics, mostly. By 2015, Ukraine was the epicenter of a standoff between Russia and the West. The odious Russian propaganda machine kept churning out tales of Ukraine teeming with Nazis, and although Western media covered the OUN/UPA glorification, reports were often drowned out by Moscow propaganda. This also gave Ukrainian whitewashers a convenient excuse: they could easily deflect legitimate criticism by claiming it was Russian propaganda.
Understandably, Ukraine’s allies were hesitant to give Kremlin media additional fodder by publicly denouncing Kiev or other Eastern European nations doing similar Holocaust revisionism. “It’s a sensitive issue right now,” I heard over and over when reaching out to American Jewish leaders at the time. To give credit where it’s due, the Obama administration did prevent Hungary from erecting a problematic statue in 2015. Other than that, the once-inviolate notion of Never Forget had become inconvenient.
The problem, aside from the obvious ethical implications, is that staying quiet and hoping our allies will simply grow out of their Nazi glorification phase doesn’t work. The Western silence, along with the billions of dollars of aid which the EU and the U.S. give to Eastern Europe, only encouraged the proliferation of Holocaust denial in Poland, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, and the Baltics.
This affects not just the dead, but the living. Historical revisionism in Europe — just like the pro-Confederacy movement in America — is directly linked to anti-Semitism. It’s be crazy to think that the torch-bearing men chanting “Jews will not replace us” during last year’s deadly Charlottesville rally were merely interested in history. The same applies to Eastern Europe, except the marches across the Atlantic involve tens of thousands of masked men, many of whom make Richard Spencer’s polo clad followers seem downright reasonable in comparison.
It’s no surprise that countries with rampant Holocaust distortion also happen to have expressed anti-Semitism. Hungary’s government has been waging a thinly-veiled anti-Semitic campaign against Jewish billionaire George Soros. In 2017, a torchlight march in Kiev resounded with chants of “Jews Out!” Last November, 60,000 participated in a far right march in Warsaw with chants like “pure blood.” Indeed, the Israeli government just issued a report highlighting the connection between Holocaust distortion and global anti-Semitism.
This is a time for American Jewish leaders and lawmakers to rise to the challenge of these ominous developments. Congress needs to recognize state-sponsored Holocaust revisionism for what it is — a warning sign of far right resurgence — and address it with a zero tolerance policy. Otherwise, when Congress does speak up, as it just did on Poland, the protests ring hollow because we’re being selective with who we rebuke. That’s why Warsaw adamantly refused to back down to U.S. and Israeli demands. From Poland’s perspective, the West didn’t care when Ukraine legally protected its butchers: why shouldn’t Poland be allowed to do the same?
In the end, Congressional actions such as complaints about teenagers playing Pokemon Go at the Holocaust museum don’t mean much when lawmakers ignore the glorification of actual monsters. Deciding whether or not to stand up for Holocaust victims isn’t a sensitive matter; it’s a shameful one.