June 22 is day we all need to remember. On this day in summer 1941 Nazi Germany attacked its ally, the Soviet Union. It was the start of a new and extraordinarily bloody and destructive phase of the Second World War. It was the move that ultimately contributed more than anything else to Hitler’s downfall. Like Napoleon before him, Hitler and his armies could not bring “Russia,” to her knees, and in this “Russia” was helped by her ally “General Winter,” the savage cold — for which Hitler’s troops were woefully unprepared — that began earlier than normal that year and that would ultimately face for three lethal winters on Soviet soil.
But as important as June 22 is for the military aspects of the Second World War, it is no less important a date to remember because it was the start of the systematic mass murder of Jews. Following close on the heels of the blitzkrieg attack on the Soviets, special units of the SS Einsatzgruppen, along with a variety of other formations, and many local collaborators, began shooting Jews in their newly acquired territories. At first only men were shot, but by mid-August, Jewish women and children were also being brutally murdered in these areas. Soon the Nazis would extend the murder to other areas, and as far as researchers can tell, by autumn, there was an overall policy of murder for all areas under Nazi domination: the so-called Final Solution.
One of the hallmarks of the murder of Jews, from the very beginning, was the role that local collaborators played. Some of the earliest atrocities were deadly pogroms carried out against the Jews by their neighbors. Among the more infamous are the pogroms in Kaunus (Kovno) and in Lviv (Lwow). On the night of June 25, 1941, Lithuanian ultra-nationalists murdered some 800 Jewish men, women and children in the Slobodka (Villijampole) suburb of Kaunus, and murdered dozens more in a garage in the city proper. Just a few days later in Lviv, rumors that Jews had collaborated with the Soviets in murdering political prisoners spread throughout the city. Between June 29 and July 3, local Ukrainians in “revenge” for this supposed crime murdered some 4,000 Jews. Murder of Jews in Lviv continued unabated, reaching an apogee on what came to be known as the Petliura Days (named for the Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petliura) between July 25 and July 27, when an additional 2,000 were killed.
Undoubtedly the primary responsibility for the Holocaust rests on the shoulders of the leadership of Nazi Germany, and the myriad of Germans on various levels of society who took part in it, especially the diehard Nazis among them. Yet the trend to minimize, marginalize and obscure the role of diverse groups of local collaborators in the murder of their fellow countrymen is ongoing and not new. In the emerging states of Communist Eastern Europe soon after the war, great numbers of people accused of being war criminals were tried and punished, frequently with death. Yet, despite these trials, these societies refrained from truly confronting their responsibility as societies for their part in the Holocaust. In the Communist states, by and large, the history of the Holocaust was neither researched nor taught in a meaningful way. In their jargon, the war criminals were “fascists,” the casualties “victims of fascism,” and the heroes “anti-fascists.”
It was almost never mentioned that the victims were overwhelmingly Jewish, or that the Nazis (not the fascists) and their partners targeted Jews, first and foremost because of a racial anti-Semitic ideology that frequently existed in harmony with the various agendas of the local collaborators. In the post-communist era in which we now live, the search for a useable past and for national heroes has continued the trend of whitewashing and minimizing the role of local people in the murder of their neighbors and compatriots.
Recently, two events in Hungary underscore this trend. The speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Laszlo Kover, participated in a ceremony honoring Jozsef Nyiro, an anti-Semitic politician and ideologue from the Holocaust era. This was followed by the recent erection of a statue of the Hungarian wartime leader Admiral Miklos Horthy in the village of Csokako.
From a narrow perspective, Horthy could be deemed a Hungarian patriot. He rose to the rank of admiral in the Austro-Hungarian navy and then, after the truncation of Hungary at the Trianon Palace conference following their defeat in the First World War, emerged as the acknowledged leader of a still-smarting Hungary. But from another perspective it becomes clear that his behavior regarding his Jewish countrymen was less than heroic. In spring 1944, now with German troops on Hungarian soil to ensure that Horthy did not break his alliance with Hitler, Horthy’s regime cooperated closely with the Germans to deport some 437,000 Jews.
Almost all were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Horthy did not initiate this chapter of the Holocaust, but he still bears a significant degree of responsibility for it, as well as for earlier phases in the persecution of Hungarian Jewry, some of which involved murder on a smaller scale. It takes a view of history with a solid set of blinders to countenance the erection of a statue in his honor.
It is in part because of incidents like these that Yad Vashem this year has decided that the goal of its international educators’ conference is to “get back to the basics,” and discuss the core events of the Holocaust and its main issues. The German invasion of the Soviet Union and the murder that followed in its wake is one such core event, as is the issue of local cooperation in the murder. It seems that returning to such subjects is necessary to keep the details of the Holocaust in focus. When they become blurred, it makes it much easier to disregard and instrumentalize events beyond recognition, especially for ideological and political purposes. Perhaps the best safeguard we have for preventing and combating this distortion is to ensure that the primary facts of the Holocaust are indelibly imprinted in our collective consciousness.