At the Edge of the Ravine

Ogonyok No. 46

Viatcheslav Kantor

President of the Russian Jewish Congress

Last week the world commemorated the terrifying November night, which was called die Kristallnacht (the Crystal Night). That night, organized gangs wearing swastikas on their sleeves smashed Jewish-owned shops and burned synagogues all over Germany.

Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), reported the results of the so-called campaign to Hermann Göring: 267 synagogues were burnt and 815 shops were plundered; 20 thousand Jews were arrested, 36 people were killed and as many people were severely injured. A total of 7,500 shops, companies and homes belonging to Jews were ransacked.

Following die Kristallnacht, the government adopted three decrees. As punishment for being plundered, Jews were forced to pay the German Nation a fine in the amount of 1 billion marks, the equivalent of over $30 billion today. This fact alone demonstrates that any assistance granted to the State of Israel and individual Jews should not be seen as philanthropy, but rather partial reparation, although it is clear that no amount of money can bring back those who were killed. Furthermore, Jews were completely removed from the German economy, deprived of their remaining property and sent to ghettos or concentration camps.

Jews’ open existence in Germany was over. While they were ultimately chased out of German society, Jews were not being executed yet. November 9 was the end of the first act of the German Jewish tragedy, which was followed by the second act – the period from die Kristallnacht through the tragedy of Babi Yar.

The Third Reich’s anti-Semitism which was part of the Fascist ideology, evolved in line with the regime. As the general level of aggression in Germany escalated and preparations for invading the world intensified, state anti-Semitism became more and more rabid, setting as its final target the complete extermination of “world Jewry.”

The fundamental idea in the Nazis’ policy was the principle of actively forcing Jews out of the economy, politics and culture, essentially out of every sphere of life. In the meantime, it was a given this goal would be attained by any means, including psychological terror and executions.

After the NSDAP came to power, Jews were forced out of state jobs, and the “free professions” followed. In 1935, the racist Nuremberg Laws were adopted, which divided Jews into several categories and described in detail the process by which Jews were to be deprived of their civil rights.

Of the 525,000 Jews living in Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power (or 0.76% of the population), 329,000 left the country in the period 1933-1939. At this time European countries and the United States were extremely unwilling to accept emigrants and imposed numerous quotas. There were even instances of ships with refugees being turned back.

The Nazis’ first practical task was to deprive Jews of their property. They used a variety of measures, from simple seizure of property to its forced sale at extremely low prices. Furthermore, rumours were circulated that almost the entire German economy was controlled by Jews.

The rumours were a well-crafted, vicious anti-Semitic fabrication. Jews had very little influence in heavy industry, which was the basis of the German economy. Before Hitler came to power, none of the 20 wealthiest residents of Germany were Jews. However, Jews held quite prominent, if not key positions in finance, mass media and trade (the latter was a particular cause for hatred).

Jews actually did play a leading role in German science. Of twenty Nobel Laureates living in Germany in 1933, eight were Jews.

That fact begins to explain the words of the president of the University of Göttingen. In reply to a question posed by a Nazi minister who asked if it were in fact true that the University had lost a lot after the Jews were expelled, he said, “That is not true. The University did not lose anything. The University no longer exists.”

At this point, one should remember that the Jewish scientists who fled from Germany played a most important role in the development of nuclear weapons. It is too frightening to even imagine what would have happened if Hitler had forced them to stay in Germany and work for the Third Reich.

However, the purpose of Nazi ideology was not so much plundering as total extermination; “robbery for the purpose of homicide.” Die Kristallnacht of 1938 was the end of the economic Holocaust and the starting point of the Burnt Sacrifice, or the Shoah, the Holocaust of Babi Yar, Auschwitz-Birkenau and similar tragedies.

The most terrifying thing about Nazism was its combination of quite rational technical organization and completely insane, paranoid goals. This was best illustrated by the technically irreproachable system of mass extermination – from the production of lethal gases to the recycling of ash and hair.

Militant anti-Semitism in its most horrible form – a mixture of pseudo-scientific “biological” racism and apocalyptic ideas of the “atoning sacrifice” – had always been at the core of the sadistic ideology of National Socialism.

Therefore, such goals as robbing Jews and uniting the nation against a designated “enemy” are rationally comprehensible (while not justifiable!) given all their criminal cynicism. Still, these were intermediate objectives for Hitler. The main object of this hatred was different, and absolutely irrational – extermination for the sake of extermination, his Final Solution to “cleanse Humanity of wickedness.” “We do not make deals with Jews. It is either them or us.”

Hitler’s insanity was so advanced that he saw a completely preposterous picture of the world, where all the governments of the states confronting him were nothing but puppets in the hands of Jews. (By the way, these are typical Judeophobic hallucinations, although they are usually not expressed with the same degree of severity). As one might expect, Hitler, the instigator of world war, blamed the Jews for causing the war.

This formed the basis for his famous “prophecy” of January 1939, in which the Final Solution was explicitly articulated. Just as Jews were made to pay for their being robbed and killed in die Kristallnacht, they had to pay for the new world war initiated by Hitler. This time they would pay on a far greater scale.

“If the international Jewish financiers in Europe and beyond should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of Europe, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”

Of course, this was not simply the personal mania of a serial killer. What we see is collective madness. The entire world watched as it developed and infected the planet.

Although Germany was the first to be tutored in ruthless anti-Semitism, the country had known powerful traditions anti-Semitism long before Hitler. The word anti-Semitism was actually coined in Germany. For example, Wilhelm Richard Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer, and he was his teacher in militant anti-Semitism as well. In a mere five years (1933-38), the majority of Germans was de-humanized and taught to enjoy the extermination of defenceless people whose only fault was in being of different nationality.

The Final Solution would not have been possible if Europe had not been utterly indifferent to the events in Germany in the 1930s. The exceptions were those few courageous and forward-looking politicians, such as Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, who confronted Nazism from the very beginning.

The West found the Nazis’ aggressive policy a convenient tool for fighting Bolshevism; the USSR favoured it because it was opposed to western democracy. Governing elites in the western countries were completely indifferent to Hitler’s anti-Semitism (or sympathized with it, with many politicians in the 1930s going on the record as saying that moderate anti-Semitism was in fact a sign of bon ton). Therefore, the policy of appeasement towards the aggressor that was articulated in disgraceful Munich Pact (1938) and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939) prevailed both in the West and in the East.

A telling point is that even when the war broke out, the Allies’ attitude towards Hitler’s anti-Semitism changed very little.

Their tolerance was hard to miss. During the war, both Soviet and western propaganda avoided mentioning the Jewish genocide as long as possible, although the leaders of the states of the anti-Hitler coalition were well-aware of the relevant facts both from intelligence reports and from people who were miraculously saved from Nazism.

Moreover, although they had every opportunity to bomb the access roads to the death factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the united UK and US air forces did not do so (although they turned Dresden into ruins in 1945 as revenge for the bombing of Coventry in 1940). Hitler’s propaganda was shouting that “Jews and Jews only” are “behind Stalin’s and Churchill’s backs,” but neither Stalin nor Churchill were taking any steps to save Jews from execution.

European Jews were left face to face with their destiny. And their destiny was extermination.

Historians are still arguing about when the decision on practical implementation of the Final Solution was made (Hitler had articulated it in public many times, including in his speech in the Reichstag in 1939).

In any case, immediately after the Great Patriotic War broke out, the fascists embarked on a campaign of executions. Both the SS and the German army were actively involved in executions; orders to that effect from field marshals von Reichenau and von Manstein have survived in archives. Local nationalists were also involved, for example, in the Baltic States, where they undertook a large share of the dirty work. As we know today, these serial killers of women and children are locally honoured as “fighters against Communism and Soviet occupation” and given the title of “national heroes.”

Babi Yar has become a symbol of this stage of Holocaust. Thirty-three thousand Jews were killed there during two days. What made this campaign even more terrifying was that the executions took place almost in the centre of a big city, proving that the majority of the population was at best indifferent to killings of defenceless and peaceful people. Against this backdrop, the acts of bravery performed by the Righteous among the Nations were extremely admirable. Those tens of thousands of people risked their lives, often paying the ultimate price, to save the lives of Jews. They did not act out of any particular love for Jews. They were simply incapable of watching indifferently as women, children, and elderly people were killed.

However, to be honest, the unfortunate truth is that there were hundreds of thousands of others who betrayed and reported Jews and participated in the genocide. Without their involvement, the annihilation of six million people would have been impossible. And hundreds of millions of people – the nations of occupied Europe – demonstrated complete indifference to others’ fate. They apparently decided it was “every man for himself.” But let anyone who would reproach them ask himself if he is ready to risk his own life for a stranger.

We must remember the consequences of such indifference – we must remember for ourselves and not let others forget. This is the only vaccine against any type of xenophobia.

After the Wannsee Conference (1942), the third stage began, ushering in the large-scale extermination of millions of people in death camps.

Notably enough, ant-Semitism continued after the end of World War II as well.

Anti-Semitism was at a fever pitch after the war. The USSR and East Europe experienced anti-Semitism at the state and popular levels. Suffice it to say that the word “Jew” was banned as something unbecoming. When speaking of Babi Yar, officials said that the victims were “Soviet people.” They would have found it awkward to say that Jews were killed! With his poem Babi Yar, Yevgeny Yevtushenko broke down the conspiracy of silence around this subject. That is the shameful and absurd truth. People were scared of speaking this simple truth, even though everyone already knew it. It was difficult, it was risky, and it was a political challenge to the system. In other socialist countries – in Poland, for example – state anti-Semitism resulted in the expulsion of the remaining Jews, after which the anti-Semitism continued in their absence!

The situation in the western countries was not much better. The West was eager to protect Soviet Jews, but extremely reluctant to acknowledge the anti-Semitism in its midst. Only 40-50 years after the war was France ready to tell the truth, grudgingly, that the Vichy government was engaged in genocide.

Even more violent manifestations of anti-Semitism occurred in some countries of Africa and Asia. Almost all the Jews in Ethiopia, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Iran had to flee their countries – close to one million people. The world knows almost nothing about the tragedy of these refugees who had to leave behind all they had, chiefly because no one wants to know about it.

In this context I would like to say the following.

I, as President of the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, am often asked, “Why are you doing this? Is there any point to endlessly raking over the ashes of the past? Let the dead bury their dead.” I often hear viewpoints to the effect that this is all history. We can preserve its artefacts, monuments, and whatever else, but should not talk about this issue with such fervour. At the Forum “Let My People Live!” in Kyiv I had a talk with the teacher who inspired my involvement in charity. His name is Ronald Stanton, one of the greatest philanthropists in the world, who for a long time was Chairman of the Board of Yeshiva University, one of the largest Universities in the United States. I asked him about the level of anti-Semitism in the U.S. He replied: “Essentially, it is non-existent. It is a matter of history. We should be involved in education. Why remember the Holocaust? It is counterproductive.”

I told him: You in the U.S. are too self-satisfied and too conceited. But you don’t see what is happening right under your noses. Europe, Israel and the whole world see you as pilots but it turns out that you are blind pilots. In reality, you cannot be trusted with anything because you don’t see that Jews are not accepted to non-Jewish clubs, Jews are not accepted to non-Jewish schools. Do you think that doesn’t matter?

Don’t you see the processes developing in Europe? Don’t you see the processes taking place in Eastern Europe, where anti-Semitism grows by 10-15% yearly, counting only the acts of terrorism, beatings and attacks. That is why these processes must be thoroughly examined by politicians. They should work like microbiologists watching germs develop under their microscopes. Have a look at the story of the President of Iran.

Today this seems to be the most relevant story for the U.S., the U.S. President, Israel and Russia. Since the development of its nuclear programme, Iran has become the most important international topic. And somehow the Holocaust happens to be the card that is played once again. Has anyone asked why? The answer is very simple. While he mocks our values and our memory of the people who were killed, this man knows that the Holocaust existed in reality. What does he expect? Quite simply, he hopes that someone will rise to the bait of his crude provocation, thus untying his hands for further aggression.

Here is my answer to the views stated above. We should definitely know history, clarify dates and figures, and conduct discussions. But the Holocaust is not mere history. It is no accident that in some European countries denial of the Holocaust is punished by law. Debates on topics concerning the Napoleonic wars are not prosecutable offences…

Turning over the tragic pages of history, we ought to pay tribute and acknowledge the efforts of politicians who do all in their power to fight xenophobia and anti-Semitism, putting the interests of their own countries first. And here I would like to acknowledge the work of the presidents of Germany, Russia, Poland and Ukraine. Giving proper attention to positive steps is part of a productive dialogue.

Xenophobia is not history. Everybody knows that it is one of the most important and pressing political problems today (and Russia is no better or worse than any other large country). Naturally, xenophobia does not concern only Jews. This is, first and foremost, a problem that touches migrants. It is a very complicated tangle of problems that I am not going to deal with today.

What is important today is that even though state anti-Semitism does not exist in any European country, it is still alive. Moreover, it is the oldest, most resilient and “ideologically elaborated” form of xenophobia, having its roots in ancient tradition. Anti-Semitism is still a poisonous venom that contaminates all other forms of xenophobia. As they say, “the womb from which the beast crawled is still fertile.” One of the most important components of xenophobia is the Holocaust denial, mocking the tragedy as Iran did some time ago when it held a competition for cartoons about the Holocaust.

Those who deny the Holocaust today do not do so by virtue of “scientific arguments,” and not in the course of “scientific discussion.” Denial of the Holocaust is its justification; it is one of the forms adopted by a cowardly and hidden induction of a new Holocaust. As a result, reminding people of the Holocaust is not just an exercise in history or charity. It is a political activity and an important part of our common work against xenophobia and anti-Semitism. That is what makes this issue so serious.

I want to recount something that happened to me this autumn while we were preparing for the Kyiv Forum “Let My People Live!”

At an Italian flea market, I bought two pieces of old soap. It turned out that this soap had been produced in Italy under Mussolini specifically for Auschwitz. This soap was cut in 12 pieces (the number of tribes in Israel) and handed out to people in line for the gas chamber, where they were told they would be taking a shower. One piece was given to every two people. There was a profane symbolic sense to this – with this soap they “washed” Jews from the face of the earth.

We took this soap, and we, too had it cut. This soap of vigilance is to be presented to politicians as a physical symbol and reminder. The soap is a reminder that Humankind must observe spiritual hygiene, and that these are the politicians who must protect its moral health.

One of the most important factors of any xenophobia as a political illness is the position of central authorities. The illness has no chance of developing if state authorities regularly send the following message: “In respect to anyone, we intend to act in accordance with the law, paying no attention to political, religious, economic and other factors. If a Jew is guilty, he will be punished. If a person who attacked a Jew is guilty, he will be definitely punished.” This must be stated clearly, even if there is just one Jew surrounded by millions of others. Such moral authority guarantees a country’s greatness. And this is true for every country and every people.

Yes, Humankind did step away from the edge of the ravine. But it did not step so far away that it can’t look back and remember the edge at which we all once stood.