The Other Anniversary: D-Day

Welcome! In an essay published in these pages yesterday, I considered the Six Day War of 1967 in its historical context and from a personal perspective. A few friends have responded with recollections of their own of that time: it was one of those dates one remembers what one was doing, like November 22, 1963. Or 9/11. There was another anniversary yesterday, and some people still alive remember the American or BBC news flash. The Allied armada had at last hit the beaches of Festung Europa. D-Day!

Yesterday the leaders of the Western Allies— the United States, Britain, and France— commemorated the D-Day landing of 1944 in Normandy. The Queen said its outcome uniquely decided the fate of the world. President Putin of the Russian Federation was not invited, and the Foreign Ministry tweeted back at the West that D-Day was not a game-changer and it was the USSR that made the big sacrifices and won the decisive battle of Stalingrad. (Nowadays governments don’t publish decrees or make announcements on loudspeakers to rapt crowds. They twitter.)

The lady who authored the tweet was right, up to a point. It was wrong not to invite Putin, and still worse not to acknowledge the titanic sacrifices of the Soviet people and their Red Army. But the hurt response from Moscow, though understandable, was also disingenuous: the USSR had been an ally of Nazi Germany while the island nation ruled by the Queen’s father, King George VI, fought the Battle of Britain all alone. And the lady in Moscow was also wrong: D-Day was a game-changer all right. If it wasn’t, why had Stalin been pressing so urgently, for so long, for a second front? Here it was.

Somewhere along the way everybody seems to have forgotten that all the united nations who fought Hitler were not angels but human beings— and we were all allies.

The other night I watched a very expensively produced, utterly wrenching movie, “Warsaw 1944”, about the Polish uprising. Here’s the background. The secret protocol added to the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty of 1939 partitioned Poland, yet again. The Soviets seized the eastern third of the country, and massacred thousands of Polish officers at Katyn. We know what the Germans did with the part they stole: they made it into a death factory, especially for the Jews. Killing all the Jews was Hitler’s primary war aim, after all. But the Poles were to be subjugated, too; their culture and arts and identity, eradicated. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 began when it did because Soviet forces had reached the far side of the Vistula, the river that runs through the Polish capital. The Polish Home Army was expecting back-up. But Stalin ordered his forces not to lift a finger. The Poles fought with unbelievable bravery, but they didn’t have a chance alone, and the Nazis razed Warsaw to the ground. The movie pulls no punches in portraying the scale of the destruction, the barbarity of the Germans, and the humanity of the Polish resistance fighters.

The characters often remark bitterly during the fighting how alone they feel. One recalls that at the start of the Second World War, neither Britain nor France had come to Poland’s aid, either; but Polish and Czech airmen who had escaped occupied Europe joined the Royal Air Force and turned the tide of the Battle of Britain. Poland never had a puppet government, either. It damn well had the right to expect help.

The film, which is excellent, was produced under the august patronage of the President of Poland, and it is clearly intended to remind the country’s young people of their history, to bring it to life for them in the most dramatic way, when the last living veterans of the war are departing this world. But there is, in my view, a serious problem of omission in the movie: the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had taken place a year before. It too was a desperate struggle, ending with the destruction of the entire ghetto district and the massacre of most of the surviving inhabitants. One third of the population of the city had been Jewish before the war. But you’d never know it from this movie. And just as the Poles in 1944 were betrayed by their ostensible allies, so the Jews in 1943 fought with very little outside help— most Poles were indifferent or hostile, true to a current of anti-Semitism that was strong before the war and is still strong now. The heroism of the Jewish uprising foreshadowed and inspired to some degree the later rebellion by the rest of the city. The film makes no mention of it. Rather like the West and Russia presenting falsifications by omission of each other’s contribution to the war effort yesterday, the film “Warsaw 1944” falsifies by omission the heroism of all the people of the city.

That is unfortunate, because there was no need; and also because for the first time in history many Poles and Jews can and do explore the good and the bad of a thousand-year relationship as equals with mutual trust and without fear or shame. In the larger scheme of things, aren’t we allies too? “Denial,” my cousin Walter Zanger z”l, the grand old man of Ein Kerem, used to say, “ain’t just a river in Egypt.” It’s also one of the factors in making a relationship dysfunctional, and all kinds of other problems— mistrust, lack of self-confidence, delusion— flow into its mighty tide.

It worries me that great and small powers alike are rewriting history right now on a grand scale— and not with a pencil, but with an eraser. East versus West, Jew versus Gentile, one European nation against another: these nationalist boundaries of consciousness are bad, they are both false lines and fault lines, and the seismic activity associated with them is known as war. A German Jewish physicist who fled to this country in the 1930s, having seen it all happen, is said to have warned, “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that, but he was. He was Albert Einstein.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University (semi-retired), Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; and he taught Ancient Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University from 1982-1992.
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