While dignitaries descended on Jerusalem on Tuesday for the dedication of Yad Vashem’s new Holocaust History Museum, Moshe Kantor was already thinking ahead to a possible international forum on Babi Yar to be hosted by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
It would be the first follow-up to the forum that Kantor organized at Krakow last month, attracting more than 20 world leaders and senior officials on the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, and a sign that his project – the World Holocaust Forum Foundation – had taken hold.
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has already signed on as a “patron” of the foundation, a standing body that is to convene every few years to assess achievements in Holocaust remembrance and education, and Israel’s President Moshe Katsav is expected to formalize his participation as well. But the ultimate success of the foundation, according to Kantor, depends on several more leaders joining the effort.
“Without the support of presidents [worldwide], we cannot [continue to] make such events,” he said.
It should help that the foundation will operate in conjunction with Yad Vashem, which, Kantor said, would prepare all the pedagogical materials to be proposed for use in European schools. It is also officially a project of the European Jewish Congress.
But Kantor, who is the chairman of the EJC’s board of governors, is the one who provided the ideological and financial thrust that drives the foundation.
For the 51-year-old Kantor, the motivation is personal: The Russian agrochemicals tycoon is the son of a Red Army soldier who lost several family members in the Holocaust. He is worried that “without a systematic educational approach” rising anti-Semitism in Europe could again reach catastrophic proportions.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post at his home in Herzliya Pituah this week, Kantor outlined his concern that young Europeans had failed to learn the lessons of the previous generation, as well as his vision for ways to remedy the situation.
“There is one problem in all the Diaspora communities: the shortage of historical memory,” Kantor said.
“History repeats itself, you know, first as a tragedy, then as a farce,” he added, quoting Karl Marx. The best recent proof of this, he continued, was the recent episode in which Britain’s Prince Harry recently wore a Nazi armband to a party – despite the profound effect of World War II on London in general and the royal family in particular.
“Most 20-year-old Europeans don’t want to know anything about the Holocaust, and they don’t know very much about it; the word Auschwitz elicits an absolutely neutral reaction,” said Kantor. “Maybe for them it is routine and not very exciting. But it’s our task to make it exciting.”
What counts as exciting? Kantor mentions Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List, which, he said, “accomplished more than all the Jewish congresses ever, combined.” “Heroes are made,” he explained, “not by history, but by cinema and literature.” So Kantor is working on a documentary film of the Krakow Holocaust forum. He has already established a museum of the works of Jewish Diaspora artists who have made the most substantial contribution to the development of avant-garde art. It is part of an approach to promoting Jewish interests that differs radically from most European Jewish activists.
Organized European Jewry has thus far been too reactionary and defensive, Kantor believes, and too devoted to quiet, behind-the-scenes politics.
“There is another possibility,” he said: “to establish a proactive program.” Europe’s Jews “should speak out loudly; they should be strong” and present a positive image of Jewry that stresses its positive contributions to society.
“You’ve heard of global positioning systems, which help you locate your geographical position in the world? Well, I ask, how can non-Jews identify our position in the world? I think we need a Jewish positioning system,” he said.
“Should we identify our position with this or that pogrom, or this or that attack against us? No, not always. We should be provocative, unpredictable, shoot from the hip” and talk about “our positive achievements in art, in medicine, in science – in all tiers of human activity – to say to everybody, ‘your national heroes are Jewish.’ And [we should add that] we don’t ask any compensation, except one: ‘Give us the right to live in the Diaspora, and in the state of Israel, with the usual respect that you pay to yourself.'”
The Jerusalem Post