According to various news reports, Yad Vashem, the nation of Israel’s appointed agency to preserve the memory of the six million victims of the Holocaust, intends to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which will occur on January 28, 2020. While this is commendable and understandable, the manner in which it intends to observe this anniversary is deeply troubling. According to newspaper reports, Yad Vashem intends to invite various world leaders to commemorate this event. This list of invitees betrays the memory of the six million martyrs and dishonors the Jewish nation and therefore I urge Yad Vashem to reconsider how it intends to observe this anniversary.
Initially, let me begin with a number of caveats: the argument I am making below has nothing to do with the character or nature of today’s world leaders themselves- with perhaps the exception of the Prime Minister of Poland, which I will explain below. For example, this is not intended to be a criticism of American president Donald Trump or Russian president Vladimir Putin. What I am discussing instead is the historical legacy of the various countries who will be invited to this event and what their countries failed to do to save thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of Jews who were murdered at Auschwitz. Nor will I argue that the Allies could have prevented the Holocaust. Technically, of course, they could have if they had not allowed Hitler to seize power and build up his military. The reality however, is that once World War Two began there was nothing the allies could do to completely prevent the Nazi final solution for the Jews, known as the Holocaust, from being implemented. However, clearly the Allies, every one of them, could have done a lot to limit the scope of Germany and its collaborators’ goal to murder every European Jew. In most instances, other than their impressive military effort to free themselves from actual tyranny, or the threat of tyranny, they did nothing at all to limit the scope of the mass murder of European Jewry.
The most problematic invitation of them all is the reported invitation of German chancellor Angela Merkel. Yes, Germany, the country that built Auschwitz. No mistake should be made about the symbolism of Merkel in this regard. She is the political descendant of the architect of the Final Solution, Adolf Hitler. In short, in this regard she represents the perpetrators who have no place at this commemoration. To invite Merkel means Israel might as well have invited the descendants of Rudolf Hoess, Josef Mengele, and Adolf Eichmann. After all, their descendants are equally blameless for the Holocaust. Would Yad Vashem invite all the descendants of the SS? More egregiously, Yad Vashem’s act to invite the presidents of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, etc, serves as a form of forgiveness for past crimes that it has no right to forgive. A long line of Holocaust survivors, including Elie Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal, cautioned against any form of forgiveness, stating only the victims themselves had the right to forgive.
In addition, we cannot take this awful invitation out of its current context. Germany today is awash in antisemitism enabled by a government that does business with the country that does more to promote a second Holocaust than any other-Iran. Germany refuses to ban Hezbollah from its borders despite its avowed goal to wipe out Israel and the German government has done little to combat violent antisemitism perpetrated by neo-Nazis and Muslims on German soil. It is gross in the extreme to ask survivors and their descendants to look at the face of the president of a country that puts business ahead of Jews time and time again just as the man who made the slaughter of Jews at Auschwitz his top priority. How sadly ironic is it that Merkel recently proclaimed there was nothing antisemitic about Iran’s repeated threats to destroy the Jewish state. Yad Vashem must rescind this invitation immediately.
Then, of course, there are the invitations to the countries that were collaborators with the Germans and their allies. For example France. The infamous Vichy French government not only freed up thousands of German soldiers to fight on the African and Eastern fronts while it ran southern France, it assisted the Germans in rounding up Jews for the gas chambers. In Gallery 6 of the Yad Vashem history museum there is a list of 1000 French Jewish Children who were transported from Drancy to Sobibor to be gassed to death. Who arrested these victims? None other than the Vichy French police. Now Yad Vashem will invite French President Emmanuel Macron to attend this somber occasion? Of course, its possible Macron won’t come. After all it took more than fifty years after the end of World War Two for a French president to visit Yad Vashem. (The late Jacque Chirac.) Nevertheless, this country that sent its Jewish children to Auschwitz to be murdered is being invited to celebrate the liberation of the place of their murder. As if this wasn’t awful enough, today France is yet another country that is putting money ahead of Jews by collaborating with the genocidal regime in Iran. Like its Vichy predecessors the French government is also leading the way in putting antisemitic labels on Israeli products. The souls of the French children murdered because of Vichy France cry out; “Do not honor the descendants of those who helped murder us. “
Will Yad Vashem also invite the Netherlands? The country where 77% of its Jewish population were murdered and 20, 000 volunteered to fight in the Waffen SS? (Dutch SS fought against the American army in the Battle of the Bulge.) The country where thousands of Dutchmen stood near the railroad tracks and waived goodbye at the Jews who were on their way to the gas chambers at Auschwitz? Yes this is the country with the second most righteous amongst the nations-but it is also had highest mortality rate of Jews of any western European country during the Holocaust. This is also the country that has appropriated the story of Anne Frank to create the false image that it was somehow good to the Jews during WW2; ignoring the fact that Anne and her family, except for her father and a cousin, were betrayed by the Dutch and eventually murdered.
I am sure Yad Vashem will also invite our “friends” from Eastern Europe, for example Ukraine who’s current president is Jewish. The Ukrainians were allies of Germany in World War Two. The Germans were able to put together two SS Divisions from the Ukraine to fight against the Soviet Union and serve as guards in concentration camps and ghettos. Many of the SS who marched Jews to their deaths in mass graves were Ukrainians. Yad Vashem is awash with testimony from survivors who told of horrors committee by Ukrainians. If that is not enough horrible evidence of Ukraine’s complicity in the Holocaust there is the work of Father Patrick Dubois. His seminal book The Holocaust by Bullets included interviews with Ukrainians who coldly, without any remorse, remembered assisting the Germans in their task of murdering Jews- some provided tools, some dug graves, and some transported the Jews to the killing pits, but nobody could recall anyone trying to interfere with the Germans genocidal plans. Will Yad Vashem forgive this nightmarish legacy and invite them to a ceremony commemorating the end of one of the largest places of genocide constructed by the Germans?
Then there is the invitation to Vladimir Putin. While the Soviet Union does not exist anymore, thousands of Russian officials, such as Putin himself , served under the communist regime that refused to recognize the Jewish identity of the hundreds of thousands Jews who were murdered in the former Soviet Union. While it is true the Soviets liberated many camps, including Auschwitz itself, there is no record of the Soviets making any special effort to liberate the camps or recognize the Jewish nature of the Holocaust after the war ended. Today Russia is an ally of countries such as Syria , which given the opportunity would annihilate the Jewish community in Israel. In fact, they attempted to do so three times and failed. The Russians do not deserve a place at this commemoration.
I am sure Yad Vashem will invite President Trump or his designee to take part in the ceremony. This too will be an egregious mistake. Again, this is not a reaction to Trump’s genuine friendship towards Israel or his politics; it’s a comment on the symbol of his office as President of the United States. It was his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was president during the Holocaust and whose sins have only been fully comprehended in the last thirty years or so. It was FDR who refused to take in Jews fleeing Hitler at the Evian Conference in 1938 and even thwarted efforts for Jews to be given refuge en masse in the Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic. It was FDR who turned aside the passengers of the St. Louis with the result that more than 200 of those passengers were gassed to death at Auschwitz. It was Roosevelt who refused to meet with orthodox rabbis who wanted to urge him to take a more pro-active role in rescuing Jews. It was Roosevelt who ignored pleas from Jews and non-Jews alike, such as Jan Karski, to bomb the gas chambers, railroad tracks, or rail bridges leading to Auschwitz, even in 1944 when the Americans had the means do so. Finally, it was FDR who’s State Department, led by Breckenridge Long, who created a system of obstacles making it impossible for Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler to enter the United States and, on top of that, repeatedly refused to create an agency to rescue Jews. Finally, Roosevelt’s State Department was exposed as a den of antisemites in a Treasury Department investigation conducted in 1943 that forced FDR, to create the War Refugee Board in January, 1944. Too little and too late, for most of Hitler’s victims. The American president should be disinvited precisely because FDR’s indifference show cased a lack of moral clarity that that failed to save Jews from Germany’s ovens and specifically failed to do anything to stop this slaughter at Auschwitz itself.
Admittedly there is little discussion at Yad Vashem of the sordid behavior of FDR’s administration. Given the research that has substantially proven Roosevelt’s malfeasance this is unfortunate. Could it be that Yad Vashem does not want to upset American donors, many of whom cling to the mythology that FDR was good for the Jews? That is a question that only Yad Vashem can answer.
I could go on and on, country by county, but hopefully I have made the point. So the question is should Yad Vashem commemorate this date and if so, who should be invited to the ceremony?
The answer to the question regarding whether the anniversary should be recognized is a resounding “yes”. Auschwitz was the largest killing site of the Holocaust. Over one million Jews were murdered there in addition to 100, 000 Poles and thousands of gypsies. Its demise did not end the slaughter but it was the beginning of the end and was a turning point in the Nazi war against the Jews. It wasn’t the first camp liberated by allied armies, nor was it even close to the last, but it’s liberation woke up many who were minimizing the scope of the Nazi final solution.
So who should be invited? First the leader of the other country whose citizens were victims of the Germans at Auschwitz. Maybe not for total annihilation but murder, slave labor, and exploitation: the Prime Minister of Poland. By inviting Mateusz Morawiecki we salute his rank and not the man. We don’t excuse him for deliberately ignoring the pogrom in Kielce in 1946 or the forced expulsion of 30, 000 Jews from Poland in 1968, inconvenient truths that Poland, tries hard to ignore. We certainly do not endorse his attempt to suppress Holocaust research by banning the publication of studies documenting instances of Poles collaborating with the Germans in murdering Jews. We invite him because as the Prime Minister of Poland today he represents the 7000 Poles recognized as Righteous Among the Nations and, sadly, thousands of Poles who were murdered at Auschwitz. No matter the extent of Polish antisemitism then and now, and the fact that like other countries there were Poles who collaborated with the Nazis, we invite him because the vast majority of the Poles were victims of Nazi Germany and not perpetrators of the final solution.
Lastly, but most importantly, Yad Vashem should invite the Righteous Among the Nations and their descendants. These individuals, heroes who had the moral and physical courage to resist mass murder represent the opposite of Auschwitz. The righteous represent morality in the midst of immorality. Courage in the midst of cowardice. Civilization in the midst of barbarism. They should be invited to the event because their courage was, and is, an example to the world what the proper response should have been to the moral depravity and butchery of Auschwitz.
Finally, one must contemplate what could possibly be the motivation of Yad Vashem in hosting this event and inviting the descendants of the perpetrators and collaborators. Could it be politics? Diplomacy? Or maybe not wanting to insult donors from countries that traditionally have given substantial donations to Yad Vashem. It is difficult to speculate. One hopes it was a mere lapse in judgment because it is obvious that this forthcoming history lesson does not require the presence of Germans, Ukrainians, French, etc.
One can only hope the ceremony was not intended to represent some form of forgiveness for perpetrating, collaborating in, and/ or, ignoring the Holocaust. Nobody, and in a way nobody more than Yad Vashem, can forgive the perpetrators and collaborators of their crimes. In Simon Wiesenthal’s seminal book The Sunflower a severely wounded SS soldier sought forgiveness from a concentration camp inmate for the crimes he committed against the Jews. The Jewish victim refuses to forgive the German perpetrator. A variety of prominent people were asked to give their views as to whether the SS soldier in The Sunflower should have been forgiven. Judge Moshe Bejski, a Holocaust victim who served on Israel’s Supreme Court and was a witness in the trial of Adolph Eichmann said: “Even if [the victim] believed that he was empowered to grant a pardon in the name of the murdered masses, such an act of mercy would have been a kind of betrayal and repudiation of the memory of millions of innocent victims who were unjustly murdered, . . .”
Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt correctly pointed out that citizens of “Germany, Austria, and other countries which took part in the Holocaust who were born after the Holocaust, bear no direct guilt for what happened.“ But she also noted “They may bear a national responsibility and their country may have an indelible blot on its historical record.” She then concluded “Who am I to offer forgiveness? I cannot speak on behalf of those who have been wronged-particularly those who have been killed.” Indeed, and neither can an institution as important as Yad Vashem. It is therefore incumbent upon them to rescind these invitations which will only be interpreted by the world as a measure of forgiveness for the perpetrators, collaborators, and enablers.