Israel’s Pick to Head Holocaust Memorial Stirs International Uproar [petition includes 19 Canadian signatories, some notable non-signatories]

Striking and disappointing that none of the Canadian delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance signed the petition, including the recently appointed head, Irwin Cotler nor any of the participating organizations. The 19 Canadian signatories are largely academics:

For years, his name was synonymous with intolerance and right-wing extremism.

So when Israel’s conservative-led government nominated Effie Eitam to be chairman of Yad Vashem, the country’s official Holocaust memorial and one its most hallowed institutions, it prompted an uproar.

Mr. Eitam, a 68-year-old retired brigadier general and former minister, has spent the last decade in the private sector. But his provocative statements from the early 2000s advocating the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and barring Israel’s Arab citizens from politics linger on the public record.

The appointment could have “devastating consequences,” said Israel Bartal, a professor of modern Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who said he would be forced to cut all contacts with Yad Vashem’s research institute after years of cooperation. “An institute headed by a person with such extreme opinions and controversial human values will never be taken seriously within the global academic community,” Mr. Bartal said.

Holocaust survivors, Jewish organizations and an international array of historians have denounced the appointing of such a contentious figure to head Yad Vashem. They say that in addition to recognizing the Nazi genocide of six million Jews as a unique event, the institution is also responsible for upholding universal moral values and educating people about anti-Semitism and racism.

Yet despite the pushback, a government appointments committee vetted and approved Mr. Eitam’s candidacy in mid-November. Only a cabinet vote now stands between him and the post.

“This is more than a colossal mistake — it’s a tragedy,” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta who has written several books on the subject. “Appointing Eitam to this position would be a blot on Yad Vashem’s reputation and Yad Vashem’s record.”

Mr. Eitam and Yad Vashem declined to comment on the appointment.

But Mr. Eitam’s defenders say he is the victim of a kneejerk left-wing campaign purely because he is right-wing and religious. They view him as a war hero and an experienced manager who could steer Yad Vashem out of a severe financial crisis that has been compounded by government budget cuts and a drop-off in donations because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The upshot is that Yad Vashem, an almost sacred institution that world leaders are expected to visit while in Jerusalem, has gotten caught up in the political and culture wars of a polarized country where the dominant right-wing battles the liberal left and is increasingly at odds with the more liberal streams among world Jewry.

Worse, experts say, it comes at a time when anti-Semitism is resurgent and far-right forces in other parts of the world are promoting Holocaust denial.

“You don’t play politics with the Shoah, and this is playing politics with the Shoah,” Professor Lipstadt said, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

Worse, experts say, it comes at a time when anti-Semitism is resurgent and far-right forces in other parts of the world are promoting Holocaust denial.

“You don’t play politics with the Shoah, and this is playing politics with the Shoah,” Professor Lipstadt said, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

She is one of 750 historians, Jewish studies experts and cultural figures who signed a petition protesting the appointment, which was submitted to Yad Vashem’s board of trustees and Israel’s Parliament this month.

Yad Vashem’s current chairman, Avner Shalev, 81, is a respected, apolitical figurehead. He announced in June that he was stepping down after a 27-year tenure.

Zeev Elkin, the minister with responsibility for Yad Vashem from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, chose Mr. Eitam with Mr. Netanyahu’s full support.

Still, government approval may not be imminent. Because of coalition infighting, all senior appointments are frozen, and Benny Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White party in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, is likely to block Mr. Eitam’s advancement by denying him a majority if it comes to a cabinet vote.

But Mr. Elkin and Mr. Netanyahu insist that he is still their sole candidate. 

Mr. Eitam, a resident of a settlement in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, grew up as a secular Jew and became observant after the 1973 Middle East war.

He was decorated for his role in one of the war’s most desperate battles and later took part in a raid to free mainly Israeli hostages in Entebbe, Uganda. Mr. Netanyahu’s older brother, Yonatan, a legendary figure in Israel, was killed while leading the raid.

But Mr. Eitam once compared Israel’s Arab citizens to a cancer and a “ticking bomb” and said Israel would ultimately have to expel most Palestinians from the West Bank.

During the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, when he was a brigade commander, some of his soldiers were prosecuted for beating a Palestinian man to death. The soldiers said they had beat him on the commander’s orders.

Ultimately, Mr. Eitam received a severe reprimand, and his promotion to the rank of brigadier general was long stalled. Yet his military career spanned nearly three decades.

Mr. Elkin, the minister responsible for Yad Vashem, denounced what he called an “ugly” and “hypocritical” campaign spearheaded by political forces who never objected to appointments from the left wing of the political spectrum.

“True, he made a few unsuccessful remarks,” Mr. Elkin said of Mr. Eitam in a telephone interview, “but that was 15 or 20 years ago.” Mr. Elkin also said that some of those statements had been taken out of context.

Mr. Elkin cited as a reference point Joseph “Tommy” Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and acerbic leader of a liberal, secular, centrist party who went on to become chairman of Yad Vashem’s advisory council. Mr. Lapid once said that Palestinians “might begin to think” of the effects if 10 car bombs were to go off in 10 Palestinian cities and kill 500 Palestinians.

“That’s a more shocking statement to my mind,” Mr. Elkin said, “and nobody opposed his appointment.”

One leader of the campaign against the appointment is Colette Avital, a former Israeli diplomat and Labor party lawmaker who now chairs the Center Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, an umbrella group for 58 Holocaust organizations. She said she had suggested alternative candidates to Mr. Elkin from the political right.

“There are people who don’t represent the left but can project an image of tolerance, understanding and moderation,” she said. Regarding the claims against Mr. Lapid, she said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Other apolitical bodies have criticized Mr. Eitam’s nomination, including the Anti-Defamation League and some Yad Vashem donors.

“Yad Vashem should stay above Israeli politics and keep its irreproachable record and moral high ground,” Joel Herzog of the Swiss Friends of Yad Vashem wrote in an email.

Critics are baffled as to why Mr. Elkin settled on Mr. Eitam. But it might signal a desired shift that would bring the institution more in line with the government after some recent run-ins.

In 2018, Yad Vashem issued a stinging critique of a joint statement by the prime ministers of Israel and Poland that was meant to resolve a rift between the countries over a Polish law criminalizing some statements on the Holocaust. Complicating matters, Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Prof. Dina Porat, was involved in drafting the joint statement, apparently in a private capacity.

Supporters of Mr. Eitam said that he could project a more muscular, Jewish and Zionist-centric image from Yad Vashem for Israel’s battle against anti-Semitism. Mr. Elkin said Mr. Eitam’s whole army career had been devoted to the lesson of the Holocaust summed up by the phrase “Never again.”

“That is something fundamental in his character, the essence of his character,” Mr. Elkin said.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/28/world/middleeast/israel-yad-vashem-eitam.html?action=click&module=Latest&pgtype=Homepage

After Ottawa monument is vandalized, Ontario adopts International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s ‘working definition of anti-Semitism’

Of note despite some of the valid concerns that the definition may be interpreted too broadly with respect to legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies:

The Ontario cabinet has adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition of anti-Semitism” after recent vandalism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

Government House Leader Paul Calandra said Premier Doug Ford’s ministers “took swift and decisive action” Monday to recognize the definition even before the passage of legislation currently before the house.

“After a heinous act of anti-Semitism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa … it is crucial that all governments be clear and united in fighting anti-Semitism and our adoption of the working definition has done just that,” Calandra said Tuesday.

“The government of Ontario is proud to adopt and recognize the working definition of anti-Semitism. We stand with Ontario’s Jewish community in defence of their rights and fundamental freedoms as we always have and always will,” he said.

Four years ago, the IHRA, an intergovernmental organization with 34 member nations, including Canada, adopted the definition that reads: “anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”

“Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities,” the definition continues.

While MPPs are currently reviewing Bill 168, the proposed Combating anti-Semitism Act, Calandra said the cabinet wanted to move more quickly with a largely symbolic gesture.

Ontario is the first province in Canada to use the working definition.

In a statement, Michael Levitt, president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, said “we applaud the government of Ontario for joining the dozens of other governments around the world in adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, a vital tool in the ongoing fight against hatred and discrimination targeting the Jewish community in Ontario.”

“Jews continue to be subjected to vile rhetoric and propaganda and still remain the minority group most targeted by hate crime, which is nothing less than an affront to our basic democratic values as Ontarians,” said Levitt, a former Liberal MP.

Not everyone was happy with the move.

While the New Democrats supported Bill 168, they expressed concern that the “government secretly adopted the definition, behind closed doors and passed it by Ford edict instead of by democratic vote.”

“Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic acts of hate are growing in Ontario, and we need to take concrete actions as a province to stomp out this growing, racist movement,” said NDP MPP Gurratan Singh (Brampton East).

Source: After Ottawa monument is vandalized, Ontario adopts International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s ‘working definition of anti-Semitism’

Facebook Bans Holocaust Denial, Reversing Earlier Policy

Long overdue. Similar action needs to be take with respect to other forms of racism and hate on Facebook and other platforms:

Facebook is banning all content that “denies or distorts the Holocaust,” in a policy reversal that comes after increased pressure from critics.

Just two years ago, founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview that even though he finds such posts “deeply offensive,” he did not believe Facebook should take them down. Zuckerberg has said on numerous occasions that Facebook shouldn’t be forced to be the arbiter of truth on its platform, but rather allow a wide range of speech.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Zuckerberg said his thinking has “evolved” because of data showing an increase in anti-Semitic violence. The company said it was also in response to an “alarming” level of ignorance about the Holocaust, especially among young people. It pointed to a recent survey that found almost a quarter of people in US aged 18-39 said they believed the Holocaust was either a myth, had been exaggerated or were not sure about the genocide.

“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Drawing the right lines between what is and isn’t acceptable speech isn’t straightforward, but with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance.”

Facebook has been under increased pressure to act more aggressively on hate speech, misinformation and other harmful content. The company has recently strengthened its rules to prohibit anti-Semitic stereotypes, and banned accounts related to militia groups and QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory movement.

This summer, a group of Holocaust survivors, organized by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, launched a social media campaign urging Zuckerberg to remove Holocaust denial from Facebook.

On Monday, the group tweeted: “Survivors spoke! Facebook listened.”

In addition to removing Holocaust-denying posts, Facebook will begin directing users who search for terms associated with the Holocaust or its denial to “credible information” off the platform later this year, Monika Bickert, head of content policy, said in a blog post. She said it would take “some time” to train Facebook’s enforcement systems to enact the change.

Critics say how effectively Facebook polices its rules is the big question.

“We are seeing a trend toward Facebook listening to their critics and ultimately doing the right thing. That’s a trend we need to encourage,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which has been pushing Facebook to crack down on Holocaust deniers for years, told NPR.

“Ultimately, Facebook will be judged not on the promises they make, but on how they keep those promises,” he said.

Source: Facebook Bans Holocaust Denial, Reversing Earlier Policy

When Senator Joe McCarthy Defended Nazis | History

Good long read over a lessor known incident near the end of WW II and how the role of former Senator Joe McCarthy in undermining the truth, not without parallels today:

Annihilate the enemy. That was Adolf Hitler’s standing order to his elite Waffen-SS as the Wehrmacht sought to break the Allies’ tightening grip in late 1944 by crashing through enemy lines in an audacious counteroffensive that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Führer’s edict was enforced in the ice-encrusted fields outside the Belgian city of Malmedy. On the afternoon of December 17, a battle group of the armored First SS Panzer Division ambushed a band of lightly armed U.S. troops. The overwhelmed American GIs’ only option was to raise white flags.

The Nazis accepted their surrender and assembled the American prisoners. Most, they mowed down with machine guns. They used their rifle butts to crush the skulls of others. Those seeking refuge in a café were burned alive or shot. Earlier that day, outside the nearby town of Honsfeld, an American corporal named Johnnie Stegle was randomly selected from a line of captives by an SS soldier who summoned his best English to yell, “Hey, you!” Then he raised a revolver to Stegle’s forehead, killing him instantly. By day’s end, the toll exceeded 150, with 84 murdered at the deadliest of those encounters: the ill-famed Malmedy Massacre.

The remains of American prisoners of war murdered in December 1944 near the Belgian city of Malmedy. The bodies were identified by number for use in war crimes trials brought against more than 70 Nazi soldiers by the U.S. military.
The remains of American prisoners of war murdered in December 1944 near the Belgian city of Malmedy. The bodies were identified by number for use in war crimes trials brought against more than 70 Nazi soldiers by the U.S. military. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy NARA)

The Allies saw Malmedy as a metaphor for Nazi heinousness and American justice. The frozen corpses of slaughtered POWs had been retrieved and carefully autopsied. Intrepid U.S. investigators gathered evidence and conducted in-depth interviews of survivors from both sides. Military prosecutors laid out a vivid portrait not just of this act of barbarity, but of the modus operandi of the SS, the most savage of Hitler’s war-makers.

An alternative telling of the story arose during and after the proceedings, however, that made it the most controversial war-crimes trial in U.S. history. The new version of the incident flipped the script, casting as malefactors the Army investigators, prosecution team and military tribunal. In this story, American interrogators cruelly tortured the German defendants—they were said to have kicked their testicles and wedged burning matches under their fingernails—and the German confessions were coerced. The United States was out for vengeance, this theory held, which shouldn’t have been surprising given that some of the investigators were Jews. Yes, war was brutal, but any atrocities committed that December day in 1944 should be laid at the feet of the Nazi generals who issued the orders, not the troops who followed them. Yes, America had won the war, and it was imposing a classic victor’s justice. The primary advocates of this alternative narrative were the chief defense attorney, the convicted perpetrators and their ex-Nazi supporters, some U.S. peace activists and, most surprising, the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy.

The trial, held from May to July 1946 in the former concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, charged German generals along with rank-and-file soldiers. All but one of the defendants was found guilty; within a decade, all walked free.
The trial, held from May to July 1946 in the former concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, charged German generals along with rank-and-file soldiers. All but one of the defendants was found guilty; within a decade, all walked free. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

Three years after the verdicts, the Army appointed a commission to sort out the conflicting interpretations of the Malmedy prosecutions. That probe spawned more lurid news accounts of alleged coercion of testimony and mistreatment of the German inmates, which led the Army to name yet another review panel. With political pressure building, in March 1949 the Senate convened a special investigatory subcommittee made up of Raymond Baldwin of Connecticut, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and Lester Hunt of Wyoming. McCarthy, who’d been intensely interested from the start, was granted special authorization by the panel to sit in as an observer.

At the time, McCarthy was less than halfway through his first term in the Senate, and he hadn’t yet launched the reckless crusade against alleged Communists that would turn his name into an “ism.” Relegated to the status of a backbencher after Democrats took control of the Senate in 1949, McCarthy was thirsting for a cause that would let him claim the spotlight. The cause that this ex-Marine and uber-patriot picked—as an apologist for the Nazi perpetrators of the bloodiest slaughter of American soldiers during World War II—would, more than anything he had done previously, define him for his fellow senators and anybody else paying close attention. But so few were paying him heed that no alarms were sounded, and in short order his Malmedy trickery was overshadowed by his campaign against those he branded as un-American, an irony that lends special meaning to this forgotten chapter in the making of Joe McCarthy.

* * *

Source: When Senator Joe McCarthy Defended Nazis | History

Construction of Austrian Holocaust victims’ memorial begins

Long overdue:

Construction of Austria’s first public monument naming all the country’s Holocaust victims began on Monday, a further step by Adolf Hitler’s native land towards confronting an issue it has long struggled with.

For decades after World War Two, Austria denied responsibility for crimes committed by the Nazis, arguing that it was their first victim despite the enthusiasm with which many citizens had welcomed annexation by Hitler’s Germany in 1938.

The country now recognises that Austrians were perpetrators as well as victims of Nazi crimes but it has not confronted that chapter of its history as openly or directly as Germany.

“Berlin has one. Paris has one. Vienna had none. But the day has finally come today,” Oskar Deutsch, president of the Jewish Community (IKG), the body officially representing Austria’s Jews, said at a ceremony marking the start of construction work.

The new monument, located in a park next to Austria’s central bank, will comprise a ring of upright stone slabs around an island of trees, and will name all 64,259 Austrian victims of the Holocaust. It is due to be inaugurated in a year’s time.

“Remembering means commemorating the victims of the Shoah. This remembering and our history increase our responsibility, the responsibility daily and together to do everything to ensure that something like this never happens again,” said Deutsch.

Ironically, the project was first backed in 2018 by a previous coalition government of current Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis and whose first leader had been an SS officer.

Although the FPO says it has abandoned its anti-Semitic past and now denounces the Holocaust, it has been plagued by racism and anti-Semitism scandals, and the IKG still refuses to deal with party officials. The FPO crashed out of government last year and Kurz now governs in coalition with the Greens.

There are Holocaust memorials in Vienna but the only one naming the Jews who lived in Austria and were murdered is in the city’s main synagogue.

Source: Construction of Austrian Holocaust victims’ memorial begins

Vatican minimised Shoah reports due to antisemitism, researchers find

Having access to the Vatican archives was a long-term objective for many Holocaust researchers and good that these are being opened up with not surprising evidence of antisemitism and arguably wilful blindness and rejection of evidence:

German researchers working in the Apostolic Archive have found that the Vatican was handed reports about the extent of the Holocaust in 1942, but dismissed some of the information they contained.

The seven-person team from the University on Münster found that the Vatican had minimised information on the massacres of Jews, considering that Jewish and Ukrainian sources could not be trusted.

The conclusions hinge on a 1942 American démarche to the Holy See.

The team found that on September 27, 1942, the Holy See was passed a report by the American envoy to the Vatican, detailing the murder of Jews in occupied Poland and asking if the Catholic Church could independently confirm the crimes it outlined.

The report outlined how Jews were being taken out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and murdered outside of the city in camps.

The report, read by Pius XII on the day that it was received in Rome, said that 100,000 Jews had been murdered and that 50,000 had been murdered in Lviv, in what was then eastern Poland, and is now western Ukraine.

The report added that there were no Jews remaining in eastern Poland, and that Jews from Germany, Slovakia and the Low Countries had been transported to Eastern Europe where they were murdered.

The Vatican Apostolic Archives, which until October were known as the “Secret Archives”, contain up to 2 million pages of documents from Pius XII’s papacy. The Vatican threw open their doors, which were due to remain closed until 2028, on 1 March.

The researchers, led by priest and professor Hubert Wolf, a historian of the Catholic Church, spent a week working in the Apostolic Archive from March 2 before it was closed due to coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Wolf’s team found documents showing that the Holy See had received two letters independently confirming reports of massacres of Jews from Warsaw and Lviv.

In August 1942, it had received a letter from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archbishop of Lviv, Andrey Sheptysky, who wrote of 200,000 murdered. The following month, an Italian businessman spoke of “butchery” of Jews in Warsaw.

Despite these reports, the Vatican informed the American envoy that it was unable to confirm the reports.

Internally, a rationale justified that the information remained “to be verified”, in the words of a Papal adviser, as Jews “exaggerate” and that “Orientals” – referring to the Ukrainian Uniates – “are really not an example of honesty”.

Pius XII’s papacy ran from 1939 until 1958, and he never publically condemned the Holocaust, despite historians agreeing that the Vatican was aware of the murder of Jews across Europe.

Debate hinges on whether the Vatican remained too silent during the Holocaust and newly uncovered documents in the Apostolic Archive will contribute to peeling back a curtain of uncertainty on the role and knowledge of the wider Catholic Church during the Holocaust.

Documents from Pope Pius XII's pontificate have been opened to historians since March 1
Documents from Pope Pius XII’s pontificate have been opened to historians since March 1 (Photo: Getty)

Professor Wolf suggested that documents such as those his team had uncovered had been left out of the official Vatican compendium of Pius XII’s wartime role in a bid to preserve his legacy.

“This is a key document that has been kept hidden from us because it is clearly antisemitic and shows why Pius XII did not speak out against the Holocaust,” Wolf told Münster’s Catholic Kirche + Leben.

Mr Wolf noted in an interview with German Catholic newswire KNA that there was also potentially embarrassing information on the Church’s participation in the ‘Rat Lines’, networks that spirited high-ranking Nazis to Italy and on to Latin America.

Mr Wolf suggested, based on reports from the Papal Nuncio in Argentina, that the “the Vatican might have been able to get them passports,” and wondered whether “the nuncio was the middle man?”

Source: Vatican minimised Shoah reports due to antisemitism, researchers find

Amazon in Holocaust Row About ‘Hunters’ Series, Anti-Semitic Books

I am more concerned about the anti-semitic books and items that Amazon sells than the fictionalized series “Hunters” but others may disagree:

The Auschwitz Memorial criticized Amazon on Sunday for fictitious depictions of the Holocaust in its Prime series “Hunters” and for selling books of Nazi propaganda.

Seventy-five years after the liberation of the Nazi German Auschwitz death camp by Soviet troops, world leaders and activists have called for action against rising anti-Semitism.

“Hunters”, released on Friday and starring Al Pacino, features a team of Nazi hunters in 1970s New York who discover that hundreds of escaped Nazis are living in the United States.

However, the series has faced accusations of bad taste, particularly for depicting fictional atrocities in Nazi death camps, such as a game of human chess in which people are killed when a piece is taken.

“Inventing a fake game of human chess for @huntersonprime is not only dangerous foolishness & caricature. It also welcomes future deniers,” the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted.

“We honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy.”

The Auschwitz Memorial is responsible for preserving the Nazi German death camp in southern Poland, where more than 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, perished in gas chambers or from starvation, cold and disease.

The Memorial also criticized Amazon for selling anti-Semitic books.

On Friday, the Memorial retweeted a letter from the Holocaust Educational Trust to Amazon asking that anti-Semitic children’s books by Nazi Julius Streicher, who was executed for crimes against humanity, be removed from sale.

“When you decide to make a profit on selling vicious antisemitic Nazi propaganda published without any critical comment or context, you need to remember that those words led not only to the #Holocaust but also many other hate crimes,” the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted on Sunday.

“As a bookseller, we are mindful of book censorship throughout history, and we do not take this lightly. We believe that providing access to written speech is important, including books that some may find objectionable,” an Amazon spokesman said in a comment emailed to Reuters. Amazon said it would comment on “Hunters” later.

In December, Amazon withdrew from sale products decorated with images of Auschwitz, including Christmas decorations, after the Memorial complained.

Separately, prosecutors launched an investigation into a primary school in the town of Labunie, which staged a reenactment of Auschwitz with children dressed as prisoners being gassed, local media reported.

The school is accused of promoting fascism in the performance in December. It could not immediately be reached for comment.

Putin at the World Holocaust Forum

Of note:

Earlier this month, some ten days after the World Holocaust Forum held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem to commemorate the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, the museum issued an unusual apology for a film presentation that contained “inaccuracies” and “created an unbalanced impression”—by, among other things, memory-holing the 1939 division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the Soviet occupation of the Baltics in 1940.

The apology letter, signed by Professor Dan Michman of Yad Vashem’s International Institute of Holocaust Research and published in Haaretz, referred to this assault on historical facts as a “regrettable mishap.” But the presentation was actually part of a much bigger problem: the degree to which the forum was turned into a showcase for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his revisionist history, and his friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The January 23 forum—funded mostly by Russian Jewish billionaire, European Jewish Congress president, and Putin ally Moshe Kantor, and organized in partnership with the Israeli government—more or less channeled the Kremlin propaganda narrative of World War II, in which Soviet Russia was virtually the single-handed victor over the Nazis and rescuer of the Jews. There was no mention of Soviet collusion with Nazi Germany in 1939–1940 under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or of Soviet war crimes such as the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and elite professionals—including, by the way, about 900 Jews—at the Katyn Forest.

No one questions the importance of the Soviet Union’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany after 1941. Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz and were the first witnesses to its horrors. But nor is there any serious dispute about the darker side of the USSR’s role in World War II. In his prime-slot forum speech, Putin not only asserted that it was the “Soviet people” who “liberated Europe from Nazism”; he also attempted to position Russia, in seamless succession to the Soviet Union, as having a special role in Holocaust remembrance. (Along the way, he made the blatantly false claim that about 40 percent of Jews murdered in the Holocaust were Soviet citizens, which quickly drew protests from historians: The actual figure is estimated at 15 to 25 percent.)

What Putin conveniently left out is the Soviet regime’s long record of covering up and minimizing the genocide of Jews in order to keep the focus on Nazi war crimes against the Soviet people—as well as Stalin’s persecution and murder of Jewish anti-Nazi activists in the postwar years. At first, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviet leadership was anxious to mobilize prominent Jews—particularly cultural and intellectual figures—for propaganda purposes to win foreign support for its war effort and its alliance with Western democracies. In August 1941, two dozen Soviet Jewish writers, journalists, and artists, led by actor and theater director Solomon Mikhoels, issued an appeal to Jewish communities around the world to support the Soviet Union in its fight against Germany. (As the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe notes, “To allow Jews to appeal to their fellow Jews was an extraordinary step for the Kremlin.”) They formed the core of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, officially created in April 1942. In 1943, Mikhoels and fellow JAC member poet Itzik Feffer went on a seven-month tour of the United States, Mexico, Canada, and England; they met with Jewish leaders as well as renowned public figures such as Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Charlie Chaplin, headlined a rally of 50,000 in New York, and raised millions of dollars in aid.

But as the war drew to a close, with Soviet forces victorious and Western alliances secured, the Jewish “antifascists” had outlived their usefulness—and their work to collect evidence of the Nazis’ targeted extermination of Jews was met with barely disguised hostility. The Soviet leadership’s attitude toward this issue is can be gleaned from the fact that the Soviet special report on the “monstrous crimes in Oświęcim” (Auschwitz), issued on May 8, 1945, did not contain a single mention of Jews. It referred to Auschwitz as a “camp for the extermination of captive Soviet people” and described the victims as “citizens of the Soviet Union, Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Rumania and other countries.”

When JAC completed the “Black Book” documenting German atrocities against Jews on Soviet territory, compiled by journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman, the volume was reluctantly approved for publication in early 1946 after revisions to ensure that it followed the party line. But before a single copy could be printed, it was banned for “grave political errors,” and the typeset galleys were destroyed. (The book did appear in English in New York the same year; its first Russian-language edition was published in Israel in 1980.) Meanwhile, the Ministry of State Security, or MGB—the KGB’s predecessor—was sending reports to Communist Party leadership accusing JAC of “bourgeois nationalism” and contacts with foreign intelligence.

JAC was disbanded in November 1948; Mikhoels had been murdered by MGB agents several months earlier, his death officially blamed on a hit-and-run accident. There soon followed a massive anti-Semitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.” This coincided with the Soviet leadership’s reversal of its initially friendly stance toward the new state of Israel, a turnabout due to several factors—from Israel’s pro-American position and failure to embrace Soviet-style socialism to suspicions of disloyalty among Soviet Jews, particularly after tens of thousands turned out to see Israeli envoy Golda Meir on her visit to Moscow’s Choral Synagogue. (Meir’s request to Stalin to permit Jewish emigration to Israel added more fuel to the fire: no one could seek to exit the workers’ paradise.)

In the general persecution of Jews, former members and staffers of the JAC were especially hard hit: over a hundred were arrested, and more than a dozen, including Feffer, were executed in 1952. Prominent Jewish doctors were accused of deliberately murdering patients; even the Jewish wife of Politburo member Vyacheslav Molotov, Polina Zhemchuzhina, was arrested as a “Zionist agent.” There were rumors of a planned mass deportation of Soviet Jews to the “Jewish Autonomous Republic” in Siberia (ostensibly to save them from the wrath of the people).

Stalin’s death in March 1953 brought a halt to the Soviet war on Jews, but Soviet virtual silence about the Holocaust continued. There was no commemoration, for example, of the massacre at Babi Yar, the site near Kyiv where some 33,000 Jews were slaughtered in two days in September 1941 (an event mentioned in Putin’s speech). In 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko briefly broke this silence with his poem “Babi Yar,” published in the weekly Literary Gazette; it explicitly identified the victims as Jews and described the murders as part of the long history of anti-Semitic violence. In response, the poet was viciously trashed in the Soviet press for fomenting ethnic division, and the editor who had accepted and printed the poem was fired “for insufficient vigilance.” At a meeting with writers and artists, then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev himself assailed the author for his ideological lapse. While Yevtushenko eventually found his way back into the regime’s good graces, “Babi Yar” was not included in any of the Soviet-era editions of his poetry except for one three-volume collection. (Incidentally, the poem’s opening line—“No monument stands over Babi Yar”—remained true until the fall of the Soviet Union. The first memorials on the site were built in an independent Ukraine.)

All that history was missing from Putin’s speech. So was the well-known role of Soviet propaganda in fomenting anti-Jewish vitriol—under the guise of “anti-Zionism”—from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. Putin did, however, find the time to take swipes at ex-Soviet republics that currently refuse to march to Russia’s orders—Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia—by pointedly noting their populations’ complicity in the Nazi slaughter of Jews. (Nazi collaboration in Russia and in mostly Russia-friendly Belarus got a pass.) He may have also subtly taunted Poland by referencing the Nazi massacre at the Belarusian village of Khatyn—a name almost identical to Katyn. Many historians believe the Soviets deliberately amplified the Khatyn tragedy in the late 1960s because of the name similarity, in the hope that the confusion would distract from the matter of Katyn.

For Putin, such distortions and lies are business as usual. But abetting them was a shameful moment for the Israeli government—especially since, as Times of Israel editor David Horovitz noted, the Kremlin strongman was clearly “the dominant presence” at the January 23 event. Before the start of the forum, Putin was greetedon the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who offered his personal thanks for the Soviet Army’s liberation of Auschwitz. He was the star speaker at the inauguration of a memorial to victims of the German siege of Leningrad, with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin and prime minister Netanyahu at his side. Then, arriving slightly late at the forum itself, he was introduced and escorted to his seat by Rivlin. He got, as Russian Jewish commentator Ilya Milshtein wrote on the independent Russian website Grani.ru, “a Tsar’s welcome.”

The indecency of this spectacle was compounded by the fact that Putin was allowed to posture as the savior of Kremlin hostage Naama Issachar, whom he pardoned after his trip. (The 26-year-old Israeli, arrested during a brief layover at a Moscow airport over a few grams of marijuana in her checked luggage to which she did not even have access on Russian soil, had received a draconian seven-year sentence; her release apparently involved Israeli concessions in a dispute over a valuable religious site, the Alexander Courtyard in Jerusalem.) Writing about Putin’s moment as “the Tsar-liberator of the Jewish people” in a blogpost widely reprintedin the Russian-language Israeli press, Ukrainian Jewish journalist Vitaly Portnikov called it “an abomination.” Strong language, perhaps. But the fact that Putin’s self-congratulatory spin was allowed to color an event commemorating the dead of the Holocaust deserves no less.

Netanyahu has long courted anti-liberal leaders, from Putin to Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who are willing to support Israel in the face of growing antagonism from liberal democracies. One may sympathize with this quest, at least if one believes—as I do—that the current efforts to isolate Israel are unjust and rife with double standards. But the scandal at the World Holocaust Forum is a reminder that fraternizing with authoritarians has its price.

Source: Putin at the World Holocaust Forum

Albert Speer, the Hitler Henchman Who Enabled the Holocaust, Bears Another Look Today

A good look back on Speer and some general points on complicity:

The last of the Auschwitz survivors to revisit the extermination machine in Poland have left. Now very old men and women, they returned to mark the 75th anniversary of the infamous death camp’s liberation last Monday.

Memory inflicts no greater pain than is theirs. The day they were freed in 1945 was both an end and a beginning: the end of terror and the beginning of remembering.

And one of the things to remember is not just the vast horror of the Holocaust but the fact that it was conducted as an industrial enterprise by managers and bureaucrats with a chillingly impersonal attention to detail. Adolf Hitler’s demonic program of genocide would have come to nothing without his enablers.

On Feb. 6, 1944, SS Obergruppenfuhrer Oswald Pohl, who headed the part of the Nazi terror machine given the bland name Office of Economic Administration, wrote a report with the title “Utilization of Textiles: Used Clothes from the Jewish Resettlement.”

He complained about the condition of “material so far obtained from the Jewish resettlement in the camps in the Lublin area, and Auschwitz.” Much of it, “particularly for men, is much diminished by the fact that many clothes are rags…”

Speer’s story reminds us in a timely way that it’s not only the knowingly depraved who gather around a tyrant.
The SS controlled the distribution of the clothes and possessions taken from the Jews as they arrived at the death camps. Every train delivering prisoners left on its return journey loaded with those possessions. Items of value, like jewelry, gold, including gold teeth, and foreign currency mostly ended up in the Reichsbank in Berlin, their worth carefully noted in ledgers. The clothes, if at all serviceable, went to the “foreign workers” who were part of a gigantic program of forced labor producing weapons and munitions.

That program was designed and overseen with clinical efficiency by Albert Speer, the Reichsminister for Armaments and Munitions,

Five days later he wrote to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, complaining that he needed all the steel, wood and manpower he could get for building arms factories: “We must therefore carry out a new planning program for construction within the concentration camps… [that] will require a minimum of material and labor. The answer is an immediate switch to primitive construction methods.”

Pohl, not Himmler, replied with a furious reminder that Speer had himself signed off on all the plans for building the camps and said a switch to primitive materials was “unrealistic.” He continued: “…we have 160,000 prisoners and are constantly battling against epidemics and a disproportionately high death rate, both largely due to impossible sanitary conditions.”

Of all those involved in the Nazi terror machine, Albert Speer was, literally, the most elusive—elusive because he escaped a death sentence at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, and elusive because until the end of his life (he died in 1981) he was never able to display any guilt about his role as an accomplice to genocide.

Late in 1943, when Speer had brought about a dramatic revival of German arms production, the issue of Hitler’s succession was being discussed quietly by his generals and some lower level ministers.

At this point they were not talking about a coup, but a planned succession with Hitler’s consent. They ruled out the founding Nazi psychopaths, Himmler, Goebbels, Bormann and Goering. One minister told Speer he thought Hitler himself favored Speer—nobody else had such a close relationship with him. Speer did not disagree, but the moment never came.

Speer’s story reminds us in a timely way that it’s not only the knowingly depraved who gather around a tyrant. Equally dangerous are those, like Speer, who provide the system with their intellect while in denial about the consequences. Some people do this because the tyrant helps them to advance their own agendas; others do it just because being in the same room delivers the craved-for embrace of power.

Once Speer fell within Hitler’s spell he enjoyed his proximity to absolute power, no matter how vile its actions.

Speer had first endeared himself to Hitler as an architect.  They shared a taste for the Greco-Roman style of triumphal buildings. This culminated in Speer’s plan to replace Berlin with a new capital city called Germania for the thousand-year Reich. At its center—roughly where Berlin’s Reichstag now sits—there was to be a Great Hall with a massive dome nearly 1,000 feet high (the U.S. Capitol dome is 284 feet high).

Speer was always resistant to self-doubt. Once he fell within Hitler’s spell he enjoyed his proximity to absolute power, no matter how vile its actions. And Hitler clearly enjoyed his frequent communion with Speer. In these moments of spiritual kinship, talking of art and architecture, Hitler was flattered by Speer into thinking that he was an aesthete at the head of an Aryan empire purged of all racial impurities.

He claimed that he had not been present at a conference in 1943 when Himmler spoke of ‘wiping Jews from the face of the earth.’

On the night of Oct. 16-17, 1946, ten of Hitler’s closest associates were hanged in the gymnasium of Nuremberg prison, having been found guilty of war crimes. Speer was there and heard their names being called out. But he was spared, given a 20-year sentence to be served in Spandau. (Oswald Pohl was executed in June 1951.)

Afterward it emerged that the principal American judge, Francis Biddle, and the Soviet Union’s judge, General Iona Nikitchenko, had voted to sentence Speer to death, but another American judge, John Parker, and a British judge, Norman Birkett, argued for clemency, apparently because he seemed to them too refined to be a mass murderer. Also taken into consideration was his cooperation with Allied intelligence. The jail sentence was a compromise reached after a two-day argument among the judges.

Speer was released in 1966. He published a self-serving best-selling version of history, Inside the Third Reich, and became wealthy, considered by many as the rare “Good Nazi” who had done what he could to curb the worst of Hitler’s instincts. He had always acknowledged that his industrial plan had depended on slave labor, including many Jews, working under appalling conditions, often dying on the job, but denied any knowledge of the scale of the Holocaust.

He claimed that he had not been present at a conference in 1943 when Himmler spoke of “wiping Jews from the face of the earth.” But 25 years after his death a newly discovered cache of letters revealed that he had, indeed, been present. The master dissembler was finally exposed as the monster he was.

It’s always questionable to introduce the Nazi regime as a caution when looking at our own present carelessness with the values of our republic. The Holocaust was a crime of such enormity and singularity that we can too easily trivialize it by invoking any historical comparison.

Nonetheless the message from Auschwitz was reinforced by its anniversary: Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, said he was worried that the lessons were being forgotten: “Auschwitz is a beacon of where anti-Semitism can lead, we can’t rewrite history but we can be much more forceful today.”

A wave of anti-Semitic attacks and hate crimes in the U.S. has followed the massacre of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018. Three people were killed last December in a shooting at a kosher grocery in Jersey City and at least 10 anti-Semitic incidents took place in the New York area over Hanukkah.

One issue raised by several of the Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz was how such a barbaric crime could happen in a country that, until then, was regarded as both civilized and an intellectual powerhouse. It seemed all too easy for the Nazis to operate with the silent consent of a majority of the German people.

Speer addressed this in an interview with the British journalist Gitta Sereny, who spent 10 years studying his life for a riveting book, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. He was responding to a charge that he tried to present himself as the prototype of the new technological man while he had conveniently overlooked the connection between technology and a program of mass extermination. He argued that the machinery of murder had nothing to do with technology, it was too primitive. And then he said:

“Eighty million people were not persuaded to follow Hitler because they knew he was going to murder people in lime ditches and gas chambers; they did not follow him because he seemed evil, but because he seemed extraordinarily good. And what convinced them of this was Goebbels’ brilliant propaganda, his unprecedented use of modern means of mass communication.”

It’s terrifying to think what Goebbels could have done using today’s means of mass communication. But perhaps we already know

Source: Albert Speer, the Hitler Henchman Who Enabled the Holocaust, Bears Another Look Today

Germany under fire over reform of Nazi citizenship rules

Ongoing:

Germany’s federal government has been criticised for taking a bureaucratic and contradictory approach towards restoring citizenship for Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

On Wednesday, Bundestag president Wolfgang Schäuble told a special parliamentary sitting, attended by Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, that Germany would never forget its historical responsibility to Holocaust victims and survivors – and their descendants.

Meanwhile, back at work a day later, the federal government used its parliamentary majority to block an opposition proposal to bed down in law liberalised procedures for people who either lost or were stripped of their German citizenship in the Nazi era.

Article 116 of the postwar Basic Law states that “former German citizens who between 30 January 1933 and 8 May 1945 were deprived of their German citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds may have their citizenship restored. This generally also applies to their descendants.”

But some who have applied for German citizenship say a gap exists between theory and practice.

The issue has grown in significance since the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK. Where just 43 applications for citizenship restitution were filed in 2015, that had jumped to more than 1,500 annually in 2018. The growing number of applications mirrored a rise in complaints that restitution rules were problematic and applied narrowly.

Reasons for rejection

The UK’s Association of Jewish Refugees has a sizeable file of people denied citizenship, although family members fled Germany after persecution on political, racial and religious grounds. One common reason for rejection was a requirement that the person who fled – the relative of the applicant – is a man, reflecting rules on the transfer of citizenship by fathers only until postwar reform.

Other applicants tell of being refused citizenship because, though their Jewish grandparents saved their lives by fleeing Nazi Germany, they left too soon, in the eyes of today’s German authorities, to qualify as persecuted and thus eligible for restoration of citizenship.

Source: Germany under fire over reform of Nazi citizenship rules