In an instant, victory in WWII revealed to the world the Nazi regime’s crimes against humanity. Our task is to hold on to the memory of what the war and victory taught us.
The concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau (Oswiecim) ceased to exist on January 27, 1945. It was a place born of hate, cruelty and a loathing of humanity. It was the place where prisoners of war, mostly Jews, from all over Europe were killed. It was the place where 90% of European Jewry was annihilated.
For many Jews, the Holocaust is a uniquely ethnic tragedy. But it is more than a Jewish problem – the Holocaust represents the greatest drama of the 20 th century, one that touched us all. In addition to the six million Jews who lost their lives, tens of millions of soldiers and civilians died throughout Europe during WWII. Three million of the Jews who died in the Holocaust – half of the victims – were citizens of the USSR. The monstrous practices of Nazi genocide were first used on a large scale in the Soviet Union. There were no gas chambers, crematoria or death camps. People were murdered in front of their neighbors; even the children of mixed marriages fell victim. Tens of thousands of fascists and their followers took part in the genocide that targeted Gypsies as well as Jews. In partisan areas and during Fascist withdrawals, thousands of villages were burned to the ground. Tens of thousands of people were shot and tortured in prisons, concentration camps and death camps for resisting Fascist forces or not carrying out their orders.
A commission established after the war to document the Fascists’ crimes against humanity determined that the Nazis, their allies and collaborators obliterated seven million Soviet civilians. The Nazi racial doctrine called for cleansing the world of “low peoples” to provide breathing space for the Aryan race.
When we remember these odious crimes today, we must also think about responsibility.
The history of the 20th century is the history of apathy in the face of growing evil. Countless lives could have been saved if people were not indifferent to violence. When the Soviet Union was building labor camps in the 1920’s, the world was silent. And ten years later, when fascist Germany began founding concentration camps, there was no reaction of horror. Fascist Germany deprived people of their civil rights and isolated them in ghettos, and the international community failed to react. Emboldened by this silence, the Nazis embarked on their “final solution.”
The study of the Holocaust remains as vital as ever, and its lessons reach beyond the tragedy of the Jewish people. Today more than ever we understand that the Holocaust was a test of the moral character of humankind. Not merely an example of one of the global catastrophes of the 20 th century, the Holocaust turned the world upside down, cast doubt on its ethical underpinnings, dehumanized society, and forever changed the way many people think and live. In many ways, the Holocaust transformed the idea of civilization, making racial or religious discrimination unacceptable.
It was the post-war readjustment of values, spurred by the Holocaust, that made it possible for the nations of Europe to open their borders to each other. Civilized governments’ repudiation of chauvinism and racism can be seen as a result of a conscious consideration of the greatest tragedy of the 20 th century. The global context of this process was even more apparent after the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust (January 2000) and the Forum “Let My People Live!” in Krakow (January 2005). The idea of the Holocaust is losing its specificity, becoming more of a generalized definition for any genocide. At the Forum, the international community unanimously affirmed that the devastation of the Jewish people during WWII was not solely a Jewish tragedy – it was a drama that touched all of humankind. Today, the Holocaust is the focus of hundreds of scholarly works, collections of documents and memoirs, and scores of documentary and feature films (Schindler’s List, La Vita e Bella, etc.) that have received the most prestigious awards. There are museums and memorials to the Holocaust around the world: in the U.S. and Europe, Argentina, South Africa, Canada and Japan. In 1998, the President of Russia inaugurated the Holocaust Museum at Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow. Every year countries around the world remember the victims of the Holocaust and the heroes of the Resistance. In Ukraine, September 29 was declared a national day of mourning in memory of the 1941 mass murder of Jews in Babyn Yar. In Germany, Poland, Great Britain, Sweden, Italy and Finland, the day of mourning is January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army. Unfortunately, young people today quickly forget what they have heard about the Holocaust, Babyn Yar, and the death camps. Memories of the Holocaust have failed to take root in the consciousness or become part of the culture of a large number of people. The Holocaust is certainly not the only example of historical forgetfulness or indifference to others’ suffering. We see the same indifference to the Armenian genocide of 1915, the annihilation of the native population of America, or the famine in Ukraine in the 1930’s (holodomor). In truth, most of the world has only the faintest idea of what happened during World War II. Outside the Soviet Union and a few other countries that have first-hand memories of the war, huge numbers of young (and not so young) people are convinced that the war was found by the U.S. and Great Britain on the one side and Germany on the other. The decisive role of the Soviet Union and its massive losses do not even enter the picture. Unfortunately, this is the result not only of human forgetfulness, but of Cold War propaganda. The need to instill patience and tolerance for those of other nations, races, or simply “newcomers” is one of the most worrisome problems of the beginning of this new century. If we are unable to instill tolerance in the masses – in every person on Earth – then we are doomed to face a wave of irresolvable conflicts as nationalities unavoidably come into ever closer contact. Therefore, it is vital that we continue to use the Holocaust as the most frightening example in human history of what xenophobia leads to. We must continue reminding people and explaining to them that this is always the logical, unavoidable “final decision” of xenophobia. This is the noble task of the World Holocaust Forum, which was founded to mark the 60 th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The presidents of Israel and Poland expressed their willingness to become patrons of the Forum, and the presidents of Russia and Ukraine are expected to provide their support, as well. The first Forum was held in January 2005 in Krakow, and the next will take place in October 2006, on the 65 th anniversary of the mass murder in Babyn Yar. Curiously, the topic of the Nazi genocide provides one of the few opportunities for gaining consensus between countries that have a history of conflict. There have always been political antagonisms between Russia and Poland, and yet the leaders of these two countries demonstrated a symbolic unity at the Krakow Forum. However, it is not these large meetings with heads of state and ministers that are important. Such meetings are simply a way to demonstrate the political will of leaders of the international community to not let people forget. What is needed is ongoing, painstaking work in the schools. At the Krakow Forum, the founding of the European Education Program for Teachers on the Holocaust and its Lessons was announced. The program unites all of the Holocaust museums around the world to create region-specific education programs for each country in the local language for teaching lessons on memory. The program’s goal is to pass on to future generations the memory of the Holocaust and its lessons for the whole world. The Program supports European teachers by formalizing their commitment to teaching about this watershed moment in world history, as well as by providing them access to the work of specialists in such areas as education, history, art, and communications. These specialists will act as advisors, adding input to Program content and researching new pedagogical methods. Over time, the Program will reach every school – from Siberia to the British Isles. The Forum needs to be ongoing: it should meet every few years, bringing together heads of state, well-known politicians, religious leaders, and young people. We must be honest: forgetfulness of another’s misfortune and indifference to another’s suffering are part of human nature. It is regrettable but true, and the idea of reshaping human nature is as hopeless as it is widespread. We must not set ourselves pointless tasks, but instead buckle down to the realistic and constructive toil of continually reminding people, with the Holocaust among our examples, of what horrors can be brought on them and those they love by the prevalent and almost instinctive phenomena of nationalism, xenophobia and the desire to prove the “superiority” of one’s race. In the farthest reaches of their historical memory, Jews have been vaccinated, so to speak, against fascism. The mood among the world’s Jews is an indicator of the outlook around the world and an instrument for determining the state of society’s health. Endowed with impeccable historical intuition and a high degree of political consciousness, Jews are at the forefront of the fight against the evil that seemed to have been defeated in 1945. But they cannot fight alone. All of the progressive world must unite forces if there is to be any hope of putting an end to the monster that is xenophobia.
A SHADOW HANGS OVER THE WORLD
Excerpts from the addresses at the memorial events during the Forum “Let My People Live!”, held in Krakow on the 60 th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, January 27, 2005. The Forum was organized by Viatcheslav Kantor, chairman of the board of trustees of the European Jewish Congress, the Polish Ministry of Culture, and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem, under the patronage of the President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, and under the auspices of Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis.
Viatcheslav Kantor President Kwasniewski, President Katsav, President Putin, respected guests, dear colleagues and friends! We, the Jews and non-Jews of Europe, Israelis and Americans, have been waiting for this day for over a year now. We have been anticipating the chance to come together at this Forum and share our understanding of the unique historical meaning of this event. It was 60 years ago that the Red Army, at an enormous cost in terms of human lives – mostly from the peoples of the Soviet Union – stopped the machine that was destroying modern civilization by wiping out human diversity and replacing it with the one-dimensional standard of the thousand-year Reich. The machine had already destroyed its first victim, European Jewry, an ancient, Yiddish-speaking nation; other nations were in line to be destroyed. But humanity was saved. The last page of the Holocaust-Shoah tragedy was written by a Russian Jew from Zaporozhe. Major Shapiro lived in the same town and on the same street as my father, Vladimir Kantor, a liberator and Red Army soldier, and members of his family, all of whom were killed in their hometown by the Fascists. The tragedy was brought to an end by Russian officers and soldiers: Martynushkin, Vinnichenko, Koptev, Chertkov, and their comrades-in-arms – by those few who are no longer with us and by those few who are in good health today. Just as the earth will never cover the blood (as is written over the entrance to the nearby Krakow synagogue), our gratitude to them will never reach its end. We, the Jews of Europe, have always been a precise instrument for measuring society’s health. As one of the largest nations on the continent without its own state, we have been subject to attacks wherever absolutism has not been held in check by effective democratic institutions. The Holocaust-Shoah is the strongest historical example of this, its scale dwarfing that of the biblical description of the obliteration of four million Jews left in Egypt after the exodus to freedom. Ladies and gentlemen! The Van See conference was held a mere three years after Crystal Night, and the broken windows and burned synagogues turned into death camps for all of humanity. Today, only 60 years after the tragedy, we once again see tolerance for intolerance standing on shards of broken glass. It is time to act! Perhaps it was the fact that this is the last opportunity for direct dialogue between former prisoners and liberators with young people and world leaders that has provided the catalyst for a historic initiative on the part of the leaders of Israel, Russia, and Poland, together with the heads of state delegations and forum participants to establish a regular Holocaust Forum; these people have used their authority and standing to support the creation of a pan-European program for preparing the teachers who educate young people throughout Europe about the tragedy. It has been said that Hashem grows the grain of salvation that has been sown by man. That applies to us at this Forum. Thank you for that. Our Forum is over. Welcome to the new Forum.
Aleksander Kwasniewski, President of Poland: “I welcome the liberators, former Red Army soldiers who opened the gates to this camp with Major Anatoly Shapiro 60 years ago. The presence of young people here at this ceremony is evidence of the unbroken tie between the generations and of the inheritance we receive from our forefathers. This is evidence of the respect and deep sense of collective responsibility for that inheritance. A future without hate, racism and xenophobia, a future that holds promise for all and gives each of us the opportunity for development and collaboration – this future can only be built in a world that is held together by respect for human life and concern for the well-being of each individual person. As we remember the Holocaust and the crimes committed in Auschwitz and Birkenau, we feel the need to take a closer look at current events. This is why we address young people. We feel that humanity has yet to completely understand the distressing lesson of the Nazis’ crimes, so we speak the truth about the tragedy and the shame of the Holocaust here, in Krakow, in the words of the living witnesses of those events. There is so much pain, hate, violence, and cruelty in the world, and so much loathing for human life. Therefore, we must remember the lesson and continue to teach it to others.”
Viktor Yushchenko, President of Ukraine: “This is not my first visit to Auschwitz, the site of a terrible tragedy in human history. I have come here with my children, and I hope that I will return many times with my grandchildren. This place is sacred for me and my family, as it is the place where my father suffered. Andrei Andreevich Yushchenko, from the village of Horuzhivka in eastern Ukraine, was wounded in the war and sent to Auschwitz, where his number, 11367, was tattooed on the left side of his chest. I first heard of this horrendous crime against humanity from my father’s stories and from the testimony that was opened to the world 60 years ago. The last time I was in Osventsim, I took a handful of dirt with me and presented it to respected rabbis at the Convention of Ukrainian Jews. I wanted this long-suffering earth to bear witness to my public promise that there would never be any so-called “Jewish question” in Ukraine.
Elie Wiesel, writer and Nobel prize laureat: “Logically speaking, the Jewish people could have had a collective nervous breakdown in 1945. But that didn’t happen. We can say for sure that it didn’t happen because the ancient Israeli dream of creating an independent state provoked them to action and to a new commitment. Perhaps there were other reasons, mystical or metaphysical, but it is a fact that after 1945, as never before, those who were here, not far from here, in Birkenau, became more active, more energetic, and more committed to their goal.”
Moshe Katsav, President of Israel: “The Holocaust changed the whole world order. After the Catastrophe, the world was different. Language cannot do justice to the monstrosities committed by the Nazis. The Holocaust was not just a Jewish tragedy. It was the collapse of all humankind. The Holocaust may soon be relegated to history, but the Catastrophe is an event that irreversibly affected the life of the Jewish nation. The Jewish people will mourn the victims of the Holocaust until the end of time. The lessons of the Holocaust must determine the path that humankind takes. Today we address the countries of the European Union: do not allow young people’s imaginations to be controlled by Nazis who entertain as they freeze the blood! The uniform of German soldiers who shot children on the edge of death pits, the uniform of German SS officers who shoved people into gas chambers – these are not party costumes.
Vladimir Putin, President of Russia: “Recently the German chancellor said that he is ashamed of his country’s Nazi past. I understand him, but that was the past. Today I would like to point out that many of us should be ashamed of what is going on today. Unfortunately, the disease has not been eradicated, and we are not working against it effectively enough. Even in Russia, which did more than any other country to defeat fascism and save the Jewish nation, we still see signs of this disease. And I am ashamed of that. But Russia will not be content to condemn signs of the disease. We will fight the disease using the force of our laws and public opinion. As President of Russia, I say this here, at this Forum, completely openly. We have to admit that contemporary civilization faces a no less frightening threat: the black-suited death mission has been taken up by terrorists. The tie between fascism and terrorism is clear – they are linked by their disregard for human life, their hatred for all who think differently, and, most terrifying of all, their striving towards an insane ideal. In order to reach their goal, the terrorists do not hesitate to destroy all those who do not agree with them or do not conform to their criteria.”
Richard Cheney, Vice-president of the United States : “In the death camps of Europe, people committed the greatest injustices imaginable. But now these places are sacred. Auschwitz, according to a former prisoner, is ‘…the largest cemetery in the world, a cemetery without headstones. The ashes of countless souls were spread here.’ The camps also witnessed displays of deep humanity and heroism. Former prisoners recount episodes of brave resistance on the part of helpless men, women and children, who calmed each other in their last horrifying moments, of believers who proclaimed their belief in one all-powerful God (G-d) as they went to their deaths.”
Pope John Paul II: “No one has the right to ignore the tragedy of the Holocaust. This programmed attempt at destroying an entire nation hangs like a shadow over Europe and over the entire world. It was a crime that will always leave a spot on human history. Let it be a warning, today and in the future: we cannot retreat in the face of an ideology that evaluates human worth in terms of race, skin color, language or religion. I address this to all, especially to those who resort to violence and terrorism in the name of religion.”
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