By Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper*
We had the honor of knowing and working with our institution’s namesake for three decades. Simon Wiesenthal, Holocaust victim, Holocaust Survivor, unflagging campaigner for justice and heroic Nazi hunter.
We learned many truths from a man who experienced first-hand, man’s bottomless capacity for evil, from an architect who lost 89 members of his family in the Nazi Holocaust, who was so weak he had to crawl on his hands and knees to greet the American soldiers who freed him the hell on earth—Mauthausen concentration camp in May 1945.
But there was one comment Simon would repeat on more than one occasion that we didn’t fully comprehend: “The only difference between Nazism and Communism was in theory.”
Then came Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his peaceful neighbor, Ukraine. Now we are beginning to understand. Putin may be the leader of post-communist Russia, but he is a product of the USSR, with a vision to restore the Soviet Empire. He is seeking not only to capture territory but to crush a people and erase their culture-forever.
The new Babi Yar Memorial to 33,000 Jews murdered in that ravine in 1941 by the Nazis and their collaborators wasn’t the target of the Russian missile that brought down Kiev’s tallest tower nearby, but the symbolism is clear to the Jewish people and the world: Putin doesn’t care one whit, who and what stands in his way enroute to destroying the independent sovereign nation of Ukraine.
Watching a real-time 21st century blitzkrieg that is forcing fathers to send their wives and children to Poland and other neighboring nations, watching civilian infrastructure being destroyed, watching Russian military tightening the noose around the cities of a peaceful neighbor—conjures up the image of another leader who sought to remake the world to fit his vision—Adolf Hitler.
What is happening in Ukraine reminds us of what transpired during World War II.
To be clear, we do not believe G-d forbid that Vladimir Putin and his brain-trust are planning to build death camps and gas chambers in the Ukraine. But there are profoundly frightening echoes from a secret meeting convened 80 years ago outside of Berlin.
On January 20, 1942, the Wannsee Conference was convened to harness all the powers of a modern state to fulfill Hitler’s genocidal vision. Over drinks, fifteen Ministers of State discussed the cheapest, most efficient way to fulfill Hitler’s desire to erase a people. It took only 90 minutes, all 15 voted unanimously to unleash the Final Solution. These were the elite of the German bureaucracies, highly proficient technocrats, 8 of them with PhDs. Despite fears some might oppose such a monstrous plan, history records that on that day, the most educated among them were enthusiastic cheerleaders of the Final Solution. Back then, the Nazis took great pains to hide that decision from the world.
But in 2022, Vladimir Putin hasn’t hidden anything. He openly invited the world’s media and diplomats to have front row seats to hear his plans and to record, in real time, for all the world to see, his bloody invasion of Ukraine. America and the world’s belated response was long on words and short on actions that would thwart Putin’s designs.
Many tyrants and too few leaders learned from Wannsee this truth: Never confuse academic prowess with morality. The most educated are most often the first to volunteer to fulfill the most monstrous orders to please their leader.
Perhaps one day soon then, the International Criminal Court will reveal to the world the Russian elite and ”yes-men” who drew up the plans and rubber-stamped Vladimir Putin’s diktat to blot out a neighbor’s hopes and aspirations for a free future.
Today’s terrifying headlines and images of war validate Simon Wiesenthal’s warning.
As we pray for the future of the Ukrainian people, the world must also confront the ugly truth: If Ukraine wasn’t safe, neither is any other nation. Next time it may not be Putin’s Russia. Perhaps it may be Xi’s China or the Ayatollah’s Iran.
Will the world rise to the next challenges or is Ukraine the new normal of the 21st century?
*Rabbi Marvin Hier is Founder and CEO of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action of the Simon Wiesenthal Center