Cohen: Eighty years after the Babi Yar massacre, we struggle to remember and learn

Good reminder:

Among the most searing scenes in War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk’s epic novel of the Second World War presented as a multi-hour television series in the 1980s, is the massacre at Babi Yar in 1941. It is where the Holocaust began.

Through his highly developed characters, Wouk offers an unsparing depiction of the plight of the Jews in Auschwitz and in Theresienstadt, “the paradise ghetto.” In contrast to the slow, intimate unspooling of that agony, his dramatization of Babi Yar is remote, anonymous and brief.

See thousands of Jews ordered from their homes in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. See them marched to a sprawling ravine on the city’s outskirts. See them present their papers, leave their luggage, remove their clothes. All methodically.

See them walk to the edge of the ravine — naked, terrified, wailing — where they tumble like cordwood before the battery of machine guns. See officers with revolvers wading through the bodies that have been choreographed to fall “like sardines” in the pit; they shoot those still moving. See them work with equanimity and efficiency.

They needed both. After all, you can’t dispatch 33,371 Jews over two days without a plan. The Nazis had one. Blow up important buildings in Kiev and blame it on the Jews, calling them Bolshevik saboteurs, Communists and partisans. Use that as a pretext to eliminate the community of 230,000, mostly women, children and the elderly, the younger men having gone east to join the Soviets.

Post signs telling the Jews to gather with their belongings, bedsheets, winter coats. Years later, those confiscated items were sold in local markets.

All this took place on Sept. 29 and 30, 1941. It was the largest such operation up to then as the Nazis swept across the Soviet Union, which they had invaded in June. It was, as historians says, the Holocaust “by bullets” rather than gas.

There was no ghetto in Kiev like there were in Warsaw and Lodz in Poland and other cities in Ukraine. The mechanized killing that reached its apogee in the Nazi concentration camps came later.

That autumn they would kill Jews, gypsies, political prisoners, the mentally ill, Roma, Communists and Ukrainian nationalists, thought to number 100,000. Two years later, the leaching mass graves so alarmed retreating Germans fleeing the Soviets that they made prisoners dig up and burn the bodies, then killed them.

Eighty years after the massacre, in a climate of swelling anti-Semitism, we struggle to remember. In our unconscious world, where memory is easily manipulated, distorted or denied, who knows or cares?

Five years ago, when my son and I visited Babi Yar, we could barely find it. There were monuments at either end of the nearby subway station, but they were unimpressive. Worse, when we came upon what appeared to be the blood-lands, nothing marked what happened there.

Nothing. A grassy park, picnic grounds, slightly sunken. A couple sat on a blanket. Children roughhoused. Dogs roamed. No one seemed aware of the atrocity. It was nauseating.

In my season searching for the past in monuments, memorials and museums of Europe, this was the most wilful, brazen erasing of memory I’d seen.

What the Nazis tried to hide, the Soviets did, too. In 1961, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko famously wrote: “No monument stands over Babi Yar/A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.”

Only after Ukraine became free was there any attempt to recognize the past. It was easier to forget, especially because some Ukrainians took part in the atrocity, too. History is a minefield, and no more so than when it is a killing field.

That’s changing. Ukraine is now remembering Babi Yar. The story is taught in schools; on the 80th anniversary last week, there were commemorations and programs in Kiev and beyond, attended by prominent politicians.

In the next five years, a museum, memorial and research centre are planned. Finally, Ukrainians want to come to terms with their uncomfortable past.

If the acknowledgement of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, this is reason for hope.

Source: Cohen: Eighty years after the Babi Yar massacre, we struggle to remember and learn

A bold, controversial memorial to a wartime massacre in Kyiv

Of note:

On a balmy September evening locals stroll in a leafy park in Kyiv. Parents push prams. Couples kiss. Young men perch on benches with cans of beer and shawarmas. Among the trees and promenaders stand slabs of granite the height of a person. Implanted in each is a peephole, like the lens of a camera. Peer into one of them, and you see a colour photograph taken on this spot 80 years ago: a ravine, scattered clothes, three German officers looking over the edge. This is Babyn Yar.Listen to this story

The picture was taken at the beginning of October 1941. A few days earlier, on September 29th and 30th, Nazi forces shot 33,771 of the city’s Jews in the ravine (a figure that excludes small children). It was the biggest such massacre of the second world war. Over the next two years, perhaps 100,000 more people were killed, dumped and burned in the same place, including Roma, communists, Ukrainian resistance fighters and patients of a nearby psychiatric hospital. But the slaughter in Nazi-occupied Kyiv began with Ukraine’s Jews; 1.5m had perished by 1945, a quarter of all victims of the Holocaust.

The tragedy of Babyn Yar was never forgotten. Yet as both a topographical feature and a site of mourning, it all but vanished from the map after the war. Now, an international team of artists, scholars, architects and philanthropists is transforming the landscape again, physically and emotionally. The photographs are a small part of a vast project that involves museums, art installations, books, education initiatives and films. Endorsed by Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s president, it is funded by businessmen including Mikhail Fridman, a Ukrainian-born Russian tycoon, his associate German Khan, and Viktor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch.

The mix of painful history, Russian involvement and oligarchs is explosive in today’s Ukraine. But the memorial’s ramifications go wider. Many countries have mass graves, “but nobody wants to remember [the victims]”, says Patrick Desbois, a Roman Catholic priest and adviser to the project who spent years documenting the “Holocaust by bullets”. The new memorial, he says, is a message to mass-murderers everywhere: “We always come back.”

For decades Babyn Yar was a place not only of murder but of the physical suppression of memory, first by the retreating Nazis, who scrambled to conceal their crimes, then by the Soviets. Josef Stalin wanted to celebrate his triumph, not mourn tragedy; after the war he launched a new anti-Semitic campaign of his own. Official historiography depersonalised the victims of Nazism as undifferentiated Soviet citizens.

Babyn Yar was levelled. In 1952 some of its cavities were flooded with pulp from a brick factory. There were plans to build a football stadium and entertainment park on top of it. The ravine did not go quietly: in 1961 a dam securing the pulp gave way and a mudslide carrying human remains hit a residential neighbourhood. Hundreds died (the exact toll was hushed up).

Later in the 1960s Viktor Nekrasov, a Kyiv-born Russian writer who had fought at Stalingrad and wrote about it movingly, spoke up about Babyn Yar. To him, covering up the Nazi genocide made the Soviet government complicit. Of the murder and “the subsequent attempt to forget about this murder, to eradicate the very memory of it”, he wrote in 1966, “the first is more tragic. The second is more shameful.”

Nekrasov led one of the first big commemorations of the massacre. Mourners, many of whom had known the victims, gathered at the edge of a Jewish cemetery that had been vandalised by both the Nazis and the Soviets. They held flowers and cried. The kgb cringed. The crowd was quickly dispersed; Nekrasov was expelled from the Communist Party and forced to emigrate. Then, in the early 1970s, Babyn Yar became a rallying point for Jewish dissidents. The Soviet authorities finally put up a monument near the site of the ravine, dedicated “to the Soviet citizens, prisoners and officers executed by the German occupiers”. There was no mention of Jews.

Murder and memory

If Soviet ideology had little room for the Holocaust, it has been a sensitive subject for some Ukrainians for other reasons. Millions of them fought in the Red Army; millions died, in and out of uniform. But in some places the Nazi slaughter was abetted by Ukrainian auxiliary policemen. In others Jews were slain by nationalist partisans. (In the 1960s Ivan Dziuba, a non-Jewish poet who spoke of his shame over anti-Semitism in Ukraine, was imprisoned.)

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Ukraine won independence, the area that had been Babyn Yar became a park. A jumble of plaques and memorials were erected; politicians paid their respects. But the main theme of historical restitution was the Holodomor—the famine Stalin inflicted on Ukraine in the 1930s, killing millions of peasants. As historical trauma often is in new states, the Holodomor became a central plank of national identity.

Five years ago Mr Fridman, the tycoon, saw an opportunity. Born in 1964, he grew up in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine where the large pre-war Jewish population had been all but obliterated. As a student in the 1980s he moved to Moscow and became one of Russia’s richest businessmen. After the revolution that overthrew Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed government in 2014, business and civil society helped fill a void left by the state’s confusion. Having made his fortune in the turbulence that followed the Soviet collapse, Mr Fridman knew that such moments should be seized.

In 2016 he assembled a coalition of businessmen, politicians, activists and intellectuals, both Jewish and gentile, and launched the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre. “Private money frees the project from state ideology,” Mr Fridman says.

How to remember the second world war is always a neuralgic subject. In Poland, references to Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities can result in legal action; in Russia, comparison between Stalinism and Nazism is now a crime. And the idea of private cash shaping memory of the conflict, and of the Holocaust, would be jarring anywhere. Given Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas—not to mention Kremlin propaganda that tars Ukrainians as fascist—the involvement of Russian citizens at Babyn Yar inevitably riled politicians and others. Some feared that the Holodomor would be downplayed. Petro Poroshenko, who as president until 2019 supported the initiative, now worries that representatives of Russia are using history to “discredit the Ukrainian state and Ukrainians”. Some local Jewish activists were irked by the outsiders too.

The appointment in 2019 of Ilya Khrzhanovsky, a Russian film director, as the project’s artistic overseer led to more controversy. His previous work includes a dark film installation exploring coercion and power in a Soviet physics institute, which caused scandals in Ukraine and elsewhere. Mr Fridman has been accused of nefarious meddling; Mr Khrzhanovsky’s initial ideas, such as a suggestion of role-playing by visitors as victims and killers, led to charges that he was planning a sort of Holocaust theme park.

The role-playing was dropped—but Mr Khrzhanovsky is determined to make an emotional impact on an audience for which the war is no longer part of living memory. Anton Drobovych, who left the project and now leads the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, a state body, is sceptical about both the approach and what he sees as the aloof way it has been implemented. “You can’t build a memorial of such national and international significance,” he thinks, “without a proper dialogue and consultation with society.”

The work is ongoing. Four museums, tackling different aspects of Babyn Yar’s history, are still to be built. But Mr Fridman, whose outlook is shaped as much by his Jewish roots and upbringing in Ukraine as by his affiliation to Russia, does not see the memorial as a way to attribute blame; for him it is a means to empower Ukrainian society. “The ability of a country to talk about its past is a sign of maturity,” Mr Fridman says. “People who assume the role of victim can rarely achieve success.”

Sergei Loznitsa, an unflinching Ukrainian film-maker, agrees. “Telling the truth about the Holocaust is intertwined with state-building in Ukraine and the forging of its national identity,” he says. His dispassionate documentary, “Babyn Yar. Context”, which was partly funded by the memorial project, had its premiere at this year’s Cannes film festival, to great acclaim. Based on German and Soviet archive footage, it shows devastated Soviet soldiers surrendering to German troops; Jews being abused by their neighbours in Lviv; jubilant crowds tearing down Stalin’s portraits and cheering the Nazis as liberators, and less jubilant crowds greeting Soviet soldiers a few years later.

The massacre at Babyn Yar was not filmed. Instead viewers see pictures of Kyiv’s Jews and a long, scrolling tribute from “Ukraine without Jews”, an essay by Vasily Grossman, a Soviet war correspondent and author of the epic novel “Life and Fate”, whose mother died in the Holocaust:

“Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered. Murdered are elderly artisans…murdered are teachers, dressmakers; murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread…and murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren…This is the death of a people who had lived beside Ukrainian people for centuries, labouring, sinning, performing acts of kindness, and dying alongside them on one and the same earth.”

Grossman’s essay (translated by Polly Zavadivker) captures the ultimate purpose of the memorial as Mr Khrzhanovsky sees it: to rescue faces and voices from oblivion; to make them real, so they can be remembered, mourned and loved for who they were. “We want it to be a place of living memory and of empathy, where people—whatever their age or nationality—can establish their own emotional connection with those who died here. And you can only feel empathy for concrete people.”

He began by collecting names and scanning archives to construct biographies of victims and perpetrators. A team of forensic architects and historians studied old maps, soil samples, photographs and witness statements to reconstruct the lost topography, and the terrible events that followed the Nazi invasion. The information has been used to produce a3d model depicting scenes, buildings and people, which will be encased in a huge kurgan, or burial mound, erected on what was the edge of the ravine. The more detailed and tangible the story of Babyn Yar, the more universal its meaning is intended to be.

The life that was

Among the first art installations to be unveiled was a “mirror field”, designed by Maksym Demydenko and Denis Shibanov. A large stainless-steel disk covers the ground, from which rise ten vertical columns, shot through with bullets of the same calibre used by the Nazis in 1941 (see lead picture). Visitors see their own reflections in the perforated columns and are immersed in sounds that emanate from below—names, prayers and snippets of everyday life recorded in Kyiv before the war. When night falls, the field becomes a mirage of this extinguished life.

A path leads to the “crying wall” (pictured), created by Marina Abramovic, a feted Serbian artist, which will be completed before a state memorial service on October 6th. A 40-metre-long wall, made of Ukrainian coal, is embossed at the level of the head, heart and stomach with quartz crystals, meant to reflect the diversity of victims at Babyn Yar. Water weeps out. Nearby is a symbolic synagogue, designed by Manuel Herz, a Basel-based architect, made from Ukrainian oak and partly open to the elements. Once again, the past is present: the interior is decorated with copies of ornaments from long-gone synagogues in western Ukraine.

“Memory is not the past. It is the consequence of the past, it is what makes present life possible,” says Anna Kamyshan, who grew up in Ukraine and helped develop the project. Some of her forebears died in the Holocaust; others cheered the murderers. What defines her identity, she says, “is not my blood, but this landscape, this environment, this soil. This Babyn Yar.” 

Source: https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2021/09/18/a-bold-controversial-memorial-to-a-wartime-massacre-in-kyiv

Anger as French protesters compare vaccines to Nazi horrors

Outrageous but unfortunately all too typical of the more extreme anti-vaxxers:

A French Holocaust survivor has denounced anti-vaccination protesters comparing themselves to Jews who were persecuted by Nazi Germany during World War II. French officials and anti-racism groups joined the 94-year-old in expressing indignation.

As more than 100,000 people marched around France against government vaccine rules on Saturday, some demonstrators wore yellow stars recalling the ones the Nazis forced Jews to wear. Other demonstrators carried signs evoking the Auschwitz death camp or South Africa’s apartheid regime, claiming the French government was unfairly mistreating them with its anti-pandemic measures.

“You can’t imagine how much that upset me. This comparison is hateful. We must all rise up against this ignominy,” Holocaust survivor Joseph Szwarc said Sunday during a ceremony commemorating victims of antisemitic and racist acts by the French state, which collaborated with Adolf Hitler’s regime.

“I wore the star, I know what that is, I still have it in my flesh,” Szwarc, who was deported from France by the Nazis, said with tears in his eyes. “It is everyone’s duty to not allow this outrageous, antisemitic, racist wave to pass over us.”

France’s secretary of state for military affairs, who also attended the ceremony, called the protesters’ actions “intolerable and a disgrace for our republic.”

The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism said the protesters were “mocking victims of the Holocaust” and minimizing crimes against humanity committed during World War II.

Saturday’s protests involved a mix of people angry at the government for various reasons, and notably supporters of the far right. Prominent French far-right figures have been convicted in the past of antisemitism, racism and denying the Holocaust.

The government is introducing a bill Monday requiring all health care workers to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and requiring COVID passes to enter restaurants and other venues.

At a large protest in Paris on Saturday against vaccine rules, one demonstrator pasted a star on his back reading “not vaccinated.” Bruno Auquier, a 53-year-old town councilor who lives on the outskirts of Paris, drew a yellow star on his T-shirt and handed out arm bands with the star.

“I will never get vaccinated,” Auquier said. “People need to wake up,” he said, questioning the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

Auquier expressed concern that the new measures would restrict his two children’s freedom and pledged to take them out of school if vaccination becomes mandatory.

Polls suggest most French people support the measures, but they have prompted anger in some quarters. Vandals targeted two vaccination centers in southwest France over the weekend. One was set on fire, and another covered in graffiti, including a reference to the Nazi occupation of France.

France has reported more than 111,000 deaths in the pandemic, and new confirmed cases are increasing again, raising worries about renewed pressure on hospitals and further restrictions that would damage jobs and businesses.

Source: Anger as French protesters compare vaccines to Nazi horrors

Poland, Israel in diplomatic spat over Poland’s property law

Ongoing Polish government denial:

Poland and Israel have summoned each other’s diplomats in a growing dispute over Poland’s planned changes to property restitution rules that Israel and Jewish organizations say would prevent Jewish claims for compensation or property seized during the Holocaust and communist times.

On Monday, Israeli charge d ’affaires ​Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon met with Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski, who insisted the new regulations do not bar any property claims, which should be made through courts. Poland also says it mustn’t be made responsible for property seizures by Nazi Germany during its World War II occupation of Poland.

“These regulations are not directed against anyone,” Jablonski said, adding that there is a lot of misunderstanding of their aim as they give the law a steady framework.

Jablonski later said Ben-Ari Yaalon repeated the embassy’s statement from last week, which called the new regulations “immoral” and said they “will have a serious impact” on bilateral relations.

Poland’s ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski, was at the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Sunday, explaining the new regulations made to align with a 2015 ruling by the top constitutional court.

Poland’s parliament is processing the changes to prevent ownership and other administrative decisions from being declared void after 30 years. It says this is a response to fraud and irregularities that have emerged in the restitution process. The changes still require approval from the Senate and the president.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization said it was “deeply disappointed” by Poland’s response to the concerns.

“The house or shop or factory in a town in Poland affected by this legislation was not taken by Germany, it was taken by Poland. It sits today in Poland and its use has benefited Poland for over 70 years. It is time to recognize this fact and for Poland to do justice for those who suffered so much,” said the group’s chief, Gideon Taylor.

Last week, the U.S. State Department weighed in, with spokesperson Ned Price tweeting that the changes were a “step in the wrong direction” and urged Poland “not to move this legislation forward.”

Before World War II, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community of some 3.5 million people. Most were killed in the Holocaust under Nazi Germany’s occupation and their property was confiscated. Poland’s post-war communist authorities seized those properties, along with the property of non-Jewish owners in Warsaw and other cities. The end of communism in 1989 opened the door to restitution claims, most of which would be coming from Poles.

The still unresolved matter has been a constant source of bitterness and political tension between Poland and Israel.

In 2001, a draft law foreseeing compensation for seized private property was approved in parliament but vetoed by President Aleksander Kwasniewski. He claimed it violated social equality principles and would hurt Poland’s economic development, implying that compensation claims would result in large payouts. He also said individual claims should be made through the courts.

Poland is the only European country that has not offered any compensation for private property seized by the state in its recent history. Only the remaining communal Jewish property, like some synagogues, prayer houses and cemeteries, mostly in disrepair, have been returned where possible or compensated for.

Source: Poland, Israel in diplomatic spat over Poland’s property law

Germany passes new #citizenship law for descendants of Nazi victims

Of note:

German lawmakers have approved changes that will make it easier for descendants of those who fled Nazi persecution to obtain citizenship.

Under German law, people stripped of their citizenship on political, racial or religious grounds can have it restored, and so can their descendants.

But legal loopholes had prevented many people from benefiting.

Campaigners say the move allow many to reconnect with their German heritage, particularly in the Jewish community.

“We acknowledge the work that the German people have undertaken to honour the memory of those lost and those who suffered in the [Holocaust],” said Felix Couchman, chair of the Article 116 Exclusions Group, which has been lobbying on the issue for years.

“These measures have been necessary stepping stones to rebuilding trust,” he added.

While Germany’s post-war constitution allows citizenship to be restored, the lack of a legal framework meant many people had their applications rejected.

Some were denied because their ancestors had taken another nationality before their citizenship was revoked.

For others it was because they were born to a German mother, but not a German father. Until a change to the law in 1953, German citizenship could only be passed on paternally.

A legal decree was passed in 2019 to help close these loopholes. Now that it has passed the lower house of Germany’s Bundestag, with a large majority, prospective applicants will have a firmer legal footing for their appeal.

The law does also cover those who were directly deprived of their citizenship but, given the passage of time, descendants will be the main beneficiaries.

The new law also bars the naturalisation of people convicted of racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic acts.

“This is not just about putting things right, it is about apologising in profound shame,” said Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in March, when the government passed the draft law.

“It is a huge fortune for our country if people want to become German, despite the fact that we took everything from their ancestors.”

The move comes as neighbouring Poland comes under the spotlight for a draft law which critics say would make it harder for Jews to recover property seized by Nazi occupiers during World War Two.

The bill, passed by Poland’s lower parliamentary house on Thursday, has been condemned by the US and Israel.

Source: Germany passes new citizenship law for descendants of Nazi victims

Museum exhibits works by Polish artist confronting Holocaust

Of note:

Warsaw’s Jewish history museum opened an exhibition Thursday featuring works by a renowned Polish artist that confront the lingering and melancholy presence of the Holocaust in Poland, where Nazi German forces carried out their destruction of Europe’s Jews and other atrocities.

“Wilhem Sasnal: Such a Landscape” opened Thursday at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The dozens of paintings and drawings on display confront the Holocaust in the nation’s physical and mental landscape and the difficulty in addressing an unsettled past.

Sasnal, who is not Jewish, has for two decades been grappling with this history. The 48-year-old described a generational need to confront the past, also because parts of Polish society refuse to acknowledge that while Poland was victimized by Nazi Germany, there were also some Poles who joined in the despoliation and murder of the nation’s Jews.

For decades after World War II, such discussions were taboo, with the themes of Polish sacrifice and honor dominating historical memory. But with the new openness that came with the fall of communism in 1989, scholars and artists began studying and speaking openly of anti-Semitism and the participation by some Poles in the German crimes. Each new book or film has touched a raw nerve.

“The history of the Second World War was obscured until 1989,” Sasnal said.

It was then “extremely shocking,” he said, when scholars began to reveal wartime wrongdoing by Poles, including the 1941 killing of hundreds of Jews by Poles in the town of Jedwabne.

“At the beginning I felt anger and shame,” he told The Associated Press.

“And it’s still so difficult to see that people don’t want to acknowledge it. People totally refuse, and this is the mainstream Polish government attitude.”

Sasnal is one of Poland’s most prominent living artists. His works are included in collections at the Museum of Modern Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Modern in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris, among others.

Sasnal also acknowledged that Poland is often unfairly judged — that sometimes those outside of Poland lose sight of the bigger picture.

Poland was occupied by German forces who killed millions of Polish citizens — some 2 million Christian Poles as well as 3 million Jews. Many Poles fought the Germans at home and abroad and the state never collaborated with Nazi Germany. Thousands of Poles have also been recognized by Yad Vashem for risking their own lives to save Jews.

Yet Sasnal believes that Poles must acknowledge the bad along with the good.

“Unless we accept such a complex past, we will be judged and we will be misjudged,” he said.

The exhibition comprises two decades of works that touch in some way on the Holocaust — works that Sasnal did while also dealing with other topics.

The oldest ones were inspired by cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust cartoon stories in his “Maus” books. The newest ones were created this year especially for the exhibition.

There are paintings of former death camps, but they are always contextualized, with Sasnal’s bike or his wife looking from inside a car at the gates of Auschwitz — because to depict the death camps alone would be too banal and brutal, he said.

The Auschwitz paintings were produced after he and his wife passed by the memorial site on their way home from a New Year’s Eve party on Jan. 1. Millions travel to the site from around the world. But for many Poles — including Sasnal, who lives in nearby Krakow — the presence of genocide memorial sites are part of the landscape of daily life.

A painting of an imagined map of Poland bordering Israel recalls the long co-existence of Jews with Poles in Poland, a Jewish homeland for centuries.

A portrait of Hitler has been covered in black paint and crossed out with a wooden bar, an evil too extreme to depict figuratively.

Paintings that draw on images first created by French painter Edgar Degas, an antisemite, are reminders of the antisemitism pervasive across Europe that created fertile soil for the Holocaust. One evokes a bathing women modeled on a Degas work superimposed with a swastika.

Paintings of Gypsies or stereotypical images of Africans in the popular imagination show how other groups, along with Jews, have long been considered the “other” in society.

Ahead of the opening, the curator, Adam Szymczyk, braced for the possibility that this exhibition, too, might spark anger from nationalists and right-wingers.

But now that a right-wing party runs the country — and is a co-partner in the museum, which is a public-private partnership — he said he expected the reaction to be more muted.

He said both he and Sasnal were driven by a need to express remorse.

“I think this is our way of saying sorry on behalf of others,” he said. “The others don’t say ‘I’m sorry’ so we have to. It’s a duty.”

The exhibition runs until January 10.

Source: Museum exhibits works by Polish artist confronting Holocaust

Auschwitz inmates’ families oppose ex-PM on museum council

Of note:

Relatives of former Auschwitz prisoners from Poland are protesting the appointment of a top member of the country’s right-wing ruling party to an advisory council at the state-run Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland.

They argue that the former prime minster, Beata Szydlo, has tolerated “openly fascist” groups and supported attempts to stifle research into the Holocaust, among other complaints.

Szydlo was appointed in April to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Council, a body of experts that advises the museum director. That prompted three members of the nine-member panel of experts to resign, followed by a fourth resignation reported this week.

On Friday evening, the news portal Onet carried a letter signed by children and grandchildren of former Polish prisoners, as well as one Auschwitz survivor, addressed to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

They did not want Szydlo because of her and the ruling Law and Justice party’s strong opposition to accepting refugees and the conservative party’s attempts in the past to win over voters on the extreme right.

“We remember statements that excluded refugees, the undermining of achievements of Holocaust researchers, the toleration of openly fascist organizations, and finally denying European Union alliances,” they wrote to Morawiecki, according to the letter quoted by Onet. “We do not agree to this.”

Early on during World War II, the German forces operated Auschwitz as a camp for Polish prisoners, including Catholic clergy and members of the resistance. They later created nearby Birkenau for the mass killing of Jews from across Europe. In all, some 1.1 million people were murdered at the site located today in southern Poland.

Among those who signed the letter to Morawiecki were the son and two granddaughters of Capt. Witold Pilecki, one of the most notable heroes of the Polish resistance. Pilecki volunteered to be an Auschwitz inmate and smuggled out reports of atrocities there before fleeing. He was tortured and executed in a show trial by communists after the war.

There were no immediate reactions from the Polish government on Friday evening.

Culture Minister Piotr Glinski, who appointed Szydlo to the council, reacted after the first three resignations by denouncing them.

Glinski said it was an for the museum to have Szydlo on the council and said the resignations threatened to “politicize the discussion around the most important museum of martyrdom in Poland, a place of world heritage.”

Szydlo is now is a member of the European Parliament for the Law and Justice party. She has studied ethnography and history, and is from the area of Oswiecim, the Polish town where the site of the former Auschwitz death camp is located.

Source: Auschwitz inmates’ families oppose ex-PM on museum council

Germany: New law eases citizenship for descendants of Nazi victims

Needed change:

The German government on Wednesday agreed to a draft law to grant citizenship to more descendants of Nazi victims.

If enacted, the law should fully close a loophole that led to many victims’ descendants being denied German citizenship, despite a long-standing policy of allowing descendants of persecuted Jews to reclaim citizenship.

Some were denied citizenship because their ancestors fled Germany and changed citizenship before Nazi Germany officially revoked their German citizenship. Others were denied because they were born before April 1, 1953, to a non-German father and a German mother in a gender-discriminating rule.

In 1941, the Nazi regime stripped citizenship from any German Jews living outside its borders, rendering Jewish refugees stateless and stranded. Jews inside the country were stripped of their rights and rendered state subjects.

Before this, many Jews and other victims of Nazi rule had their citizenship stripped of them individually by decree for political or racial reasons.

Enshrining a new rule

The government said the new law was largely symbolic but would set into law a change in rules adopted in 2019.

“This is not just about putting things right, it is about apologizing in profound shame,” said Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.

“It is a huge fortune for our country if people want to become German, despite the fact that we took everything from their ancestors,” he said in a statement.

Interior Ministry spokesman Steve Alter said formalizing the 2019 rule change was a way of strengthening the legal position of beneficiaries and giving them “the value they deserved.”

‘Injustice cannot be undone’

The president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, said: “During the Nazi era, countless German Jews were forced to flee or were expatriated. In addition, Jews were fundamentally excluded from acquiring German citizenship due to racist legislation. This injustice cannot be undone. But it is a gesture of decency if they and their descendants are given legal opportunities to regain German citizenship.”

His organization had campaigned for the law, saying that the previous decrees had been inadequate.

The loopholes were thrust into the spotlight recently, as many Britons lodged citizenship applications due to Brexit. Many of those based their claim on the Nazi persecution of their ancestors. Numbers rose from 43 such applications in 2015 to 1,506 in 2018, according to ministry figures.

Austria changed its rules in 2019, too, allowing the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fled the Nazis to be renaturalized. It previously only allowed Holocaust survivors themselves to obtain Austrian citizenship.

Source: Germany: New law eases citizenship for descendants of Nazi victims

Polish court rebukes Canadian historian for defaming alleged Nazi collaborator

Sigh….

A Polish court order that an eminent Canadian historian and his co-editor apologize for suggesting a man helped kill Jews during the Second World World has angered Jewish human rights activists in Canada and abroad.

They say the ruling against Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking is part of an ongoing effort to obscure Polish complicity in the genocide of Jews during the Holocaust.

Michael Levitt, head of Toronto-based Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, called the ruling shocking and shameful.

“Poland cannot continue to bury the facts and silence Holocaust scholars,” Levitt said. “Its actions must be roundly rejected by Canada and the rest of the international community.”

The group said it was reaching out to senior government leaders urging them to speak out against “Holocaust distortion in Poland.”

At issue was a short passage in a 1,600-page book “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland,” co-edited by Grabowski, a professor at the University of Ottawa, and Engelking, director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw.

According to the passage, which Engelking wrote, Edward Malinowski robbed a Jewish woman during the war and contributed to the deaths of 22 other Jews hiding in a forest in Malinowo in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943.

Malinowski’s niece, Filomena Leszczynska, 81, argued her uncle was a Polish hero who had saved Jews, and that the scholars had defamed her and her family. She demanded a retraction and 100,000 zlotys – about C$34,000 – in compensation.

Judge Ewa Jonczyk, of the District Court in Warsaw, ordered the authors to make a written apology for “providing inaccurate information” and “violating his honour.” The judge, however, stopped short of imposing monetary compensation, saying it could hinder academic research.

Nevertheless, Mark Weitzman, with the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the ruling opened the door to further intimidation of Holocaust scholars and researchers.

“By ordering the scholars to ‘apologize,’ it puts both historians and victims on trial, and offers protection to the reputations of Poles and others who collaborated in the murder of Jews,” Weitzman said

Grabowski could not be reached for comment, although Engelking said they planned an appeal.

Grabowski, whose work on the Holocaust has attracted death threats, told The Canadian Press in 2017 that he would not allow fierce criticism of his research in Poland to deter him.

“I feel personally attacked but this is for me a much more dangerous and general problem that has to be dealt with,” Grabowski said. “It’s a pure and simple attack on basic academic freedoms, which we take for granted here in Canada. I’m dismayed.”

The Nazis slaughtered about three million Jews and another two million Christians in Poland during the war. While many Poles resisted the invaders, others collaborated with the Nazis.

Leszczynska was backed by the Polish League Against Defamation, a group that fights harmful and untruthful depictions of Poland. The league, which has previously attacked Grabowski’s work, is ideologically aligned with the ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party.

The researchers, however, viewed the case as an attempt to discredit their overall findings and discourage other researchers from investigating the truth about Polish involvement in the German mass murder of Jews.

Source: Polish court rebukes Canadian historian for defaming alleged Nazi collaborator

Future of Holocaust research in Poland hinges on libel case

Of note, ongoing disturbing trend:

Two Polish historians are facing a libel trial for a scholarly examination of Polish during World War II, a case whose outcome is expected to determine the fate of independent Holocaust research under Poland’s nationalist government.

A verdict is expected in Warsaw’s district court on Feb. 9 in the case against Barbara Engelking, a historian with the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw, and Jan Grabowski, a professor of history at the University of Ottawa.

It is the first major legal test in the wake of a 2018 law that makes it a crime to falsely accuse the Polish nation of crimes committed by Nazi Germany. The law caused a major diplomatic spat with Israel.

Since it won power in 2015, the conservative ruling party, Law and Justice, has sought to discourage investigations into Polish wrongdoing during the wartime German occupation, preferring instead to almost exclusively stress Polish heroism and suffering. The aim is to promote national pride — but critics say the government has been whitewashing the fact that some Poles also collaborated in the German murder of Jews.

The Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem said the legal effort “constitutes a serious attack on free and open research.”

A number of other historical institutions have condemned the case as the verdict nears, with the Paris-based Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah describing it Tuesday as a “witch hunt” and a “pernicious invasion into the very heart of research.”

The case on a 1,600-page, two-volume historical work in Polish, “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland,” which was co-edited by Grabowski and Engelking. An abridged English version is due to be published in a few months.

Grabowski and Engelking say they see the case as an attempt to discredit them personally and to discourage other researchers from investigating the truth about the extermination of Jews in Poland.

“This is a case of the Polish state against freedom of research,” Grabowski told The Associated Press on Monday.

Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian whose father was a Polish Holocaust survivor, has faced considerable anti-Semitic harassment by nationalists, both online and at lectures in Canada, France and elsewhere.

The niece of a man in the village of Malinowo, whose wartime is briefly mentioned, is suing Grabowski and Engelking, demanding 100,000 zlotys ($27,000) in damages and an apology in newspapers.

According to evidence presented in the book, Edward Malinowski, an elder in the village, allowed a Jewish woman to survive by helping her pass as a non-Jew. But the survivor is also quoted as saying that he was an accomplice in the deaths of several dozen Jews.

The niece, Filomena Leszczynska, has been backed by a group, the Polish League Against Defamation, which receives funding from the Polish government.

That organization argued that the two scholars are guilty of “defiling the good name” of a Polish hero, whom they claim had no role in harming Jews, and by extension harming the dignity and pride of all Poles. The lawsuit was filed in court free of charge as allowed under the 2018 law.

Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called “Night Without End” a “meticulously researched and sourced book … that details thousands of cases of complicity by Poles in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.”

“The proceedings against these two scholars of international repute are nothing more than an attempt to use the legal system to muzzle and intimidate scholarship on the Holocaust in Poland,” Weitzman said.

Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. The pre-war Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country.

Yet some people in Poland collaborated with the Germans in hunting down and killing Jews, in many cases people who had fled ghettos and sought to hide in the countryside.

Grabowski said “Night Without End” is “multi-faceted, and it talks about Polish virtue just as much. It paints a truthful picture.”

“The Holocaust is not here to help the Polish ego and morale, it’s a drama involving the death of 6 million people — which seems to be forgotten by the nationalists,” he said.

A deputy foreign minister, Pawel Jablonski, described the case as a private matter.

“It is everyone’s legal right to seek such a remedy before (a) court if they feel that their rights have been infringed by (another) person or entity,” Jablonski told the AP in an statement Monday. “The government is not involved in the proceedings, it is a private matter to be decided by the court.”

Yet those who fear that the case could stifle independent research take a different view.

“The involvement in this trial of an organization heavily subsidized with public funds can be easily construed as a form of censorship and an attempt to frighten scholars away from publishing the results of their research out of fear of a lawsuit and the ensuing costly litigation,” said Zygmunt Stepinski, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

Source: Future of Holocaust research in Poland hinges on libel case