In recent days, divisions have appeared among Jews in the Czech Republic about the invitation to President Putin to attend the Fourth World Holocaust Forum in Prague and Terezin (Theresienstadt) to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 26-27. As a Holocaust survivor, I understand the fears among many groups in Europe that resurgent nationalism could usher in a new era of intolerance between peoples with disastrous effects. Russia’s unfortunate annexation of Crimea and its support of separatism in southeast Ukraine have raised serious concerns about the direction in which the Russian President is taking his country and its effects on broader European security.
I share these concerns but I object to the parallels some commentators have drawn between Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler. Russia is very far from being a totalitarian genocidal state and it is impossible to classify Mr. Putin in any way as an ideologue pursuing genocidal policies. People who are rightfully concerned about extremism need to exercise responsibility when they draw conclusions. However, I see no benefit whatsoever in excluding Russia from such an important event commemorating the end of the Holocaust. On the contrary, to do so would insult the memory of the millions of Russians and other peoples of the former Soviet Union, including Ukrainians, Belarusians, Armenians, and Jews, who laid down their lives as soldiers of the Red Army to defeat Nazism, and the even greater number of Soviet civilians who battled heroically against the German invader whether fighting, producing arms or simply growing food.
We must not forget the incalculable sacrifices made by that generation of Soviet citizens to defeat a far better equipped enemy that had a much stronger industrial and military base.
We must also remember that the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews reached new heights in today’s Belarus and Ukraine after the invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Close to 34,000 Jews were massacred at Babi Yar outside Kiev soon after the Wehrmacht had captured the city in September 1941. By January 1942, the Nazis had killed over 190,000 Jews in Belarus alone. As Soviet forces advanced westwards after the critical victories of 1943 at Stalingrad and Kursk, they liberated the death camps set up by the Nazis in eastern Poland starting with Majdanek followed by Auschwitz.
At a time of renewed tension in Europe because of events in Ukraine, the World Holocaust Forum event provides an important opportunity to reach out to a new generation of Russians and Ukrainians, reminding them of the calamities of the past and highlighting the dangers of the future. Today’s leaders in Europe have no direct memories of the horrors of World War II. I am hopeful that their participation in the World Holocaust Forum will make them reflect on their responsibility for maintaining a just and sustainable peace in Europe. I am encouraged by President Poroshenko’s decision to take part and hope that the Forum can help provide some much-needed impetus to efforts to find a way out of the deadlock in Ukraine. The situation in the east of the country remains dangerous.
We must now allow the vision of a Europe whole and free to escape us, but to do so, our leaders need to find the will to see beyond immediate problems at home to develop the collective capacity to prevent a return to something similar to the Cold War or even worse. Russia, of course, needs to play its part in this process but like other countries, it cannot claim exclusive rights.
As a survivor of the Holocaust, I want President Putin to participate in the World Holocaust Forum in Prague. I want him together with other European leaders to visit today’s Terezin and talk about what happened there and how the Czech Republic and all other countries where the Holocaust was perpetrated have changed. As they say in Russian, it is better to see something once than to hear it a hundred times. This can only help bring greater realism to discussions about the future of Europe’s security.
There is one man who can make this happen: I appeal to the President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman to stand above the fray and publicly reassure President Putin that he will be a welcome guest at such an important commemorative event in the Czech Republic. His presence will benefit Europe as a whole.