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.
“Business in Russia” No. 169