Seventy-five years ago, the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liberated. With each passing year, the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles. In a handful of years, there will be no more survivors. Our responsibility to the future: Remember the past and learn from it!
Last week, an impressive list of world leaders gathered at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, in Jerusalem, as part of the Fifth World Holocaust Forum. In addition to representatives from Israel, the participants included U.S. Vice-President, Mike Pence, and Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prince Charles of Great Britain, French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and European Council President Charles Michelas, as well as the presidents of Bulgaria, Romania, Finland, Georgia, Cyprus and Bosnia and Herzegovina, just to name a few.
Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, spoke to the world leaders at a special reception and urged them to “stand united in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and extremism, in defending democracy and democratic values. This is the call of our time. This is our challenge. This is our choice.” The words are inspiring and the encouragement is absolutely necessary. Is our generation able to learn from the past? Does it want to learn from the past? Or will we put our hands over our ears, our mouths and our eyes, symbolically saying we will “hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil”? When our hands are removed, will we again allow evil to reign supreme and continue to tear our world apart?
During the past year, so-called “hate crimes” have increased world-wide. Incidents of anti-semitism have become daily events. The historical record exists. The Holocaust happened. Six million Jews were killed as part of the Nazi plan to rid the world of all Jews. Amazingly, in our day, some still try to blame the Jew for every evil under the sun. And along with that, hatred increases, anti-Semitism increases, violence increases and there are widespread attempts to deny that the Holocaust happened. For others who acknowledge the Holocaust, there is an attempt to downplay the role that nations played in cooperating with the Nazis. Poland enacted laws making it a crime to accuse that country of active involvement in the murder of Jews during World War II. That created a political rift between Israel and Poland – a rift that still exists and is not easily healed.
Nevertheless, at a ceremony at the notorious Auschwitz Concentration Camp marking the 75th anniversary of its liberation, Israeli President Rivlin made it very clear that while many Poles fought against the Nazis, it is also true that “many … aided in the murder of Jews.” Polish President Andrzej Duda also spoke, stating, in part: “Distorting the history of World War II, denying the crimes of genocide and the Holocaust as well as an instrumental use of Auschwitz to attain any given goal is tantamount to desecration of the memory of the victims whose ashes are scattered here…The truth about the Holocaust must not die.” He did not try to deny what happened, but he did try to avoid Poland’s responsibility for it, keeping with the present Polish narrative that the genocide against the Jewish people was “perpetrated here [in Poland] by the functionaries of the Nazi Third Reich”, which also targeted Poles, as well as Jews and others and that Poles were forced by the Nazis to carry out crimes against the Jews.
Respectfully addressing the responsibility of Poland during the war, Rivlin appropriately said: “Nazi Germany was the one who initiated, planned and carried out the genocide of the Jewish people in Poland, as well as in other places, and it bears full responsibility for its actions … [adding] We also remember, in great horror, that it received significant aid in its murderous actions throughout all of Europe, and this too requires accepting responsibility.”
During my recent trip to Poland this past September, I was specifically asked whether I blieved that Poland also bore responsibility for the deaths of Jews during the Holocaust. When I answered “yes”, it generated a number of discussions and attempts by locals to negate that many Poles acted voluntarily and wilfully in aiding the Nazis. I mentioned, as a case in point, what the Poles did to the Jews in Jedwabne including the incidents mentioned in the book “Neighbors“, which is also available on Amazon.
Speaking at the gathering at Yad Vashem last week, Germany’s President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier again publicly acknowledged Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust, stating, in part: “Germany’s historical responsibility will not expire…We want to live up to it — and you should judge us on it.” He added: “I wish I could say that we Germans have learned from our history once and for all, but I cannot say that when hatred is spreading…I stand before you and wish I could say that our remembrance has made us immune to evil…Yes, we Germans remember. But sometimes it seems as if we understand the past better than the present.”
His admission and confession gave impetus to the historic apology yesterday (Sunday) of Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, on behalf of the Dutch government, saying “Too little protection. Too little help. Too little acknowledgement.” He was referring to Holland’s failure to protect her Jewish citizens from Nazi persecution. He added that officials of the Dutch government willingly carried out orders of the German occupiers and failed to act when “a group of fellow citizens was singled out, excluded, and dehumanized under a murderous regime.”
I am all in favor of apologies for wrongs committed. If one messes up in public, he should “fess up” in public. But, if the apology is not followed by action and behavior that gives meaning and significance to the apology, then it is nothing more than a verbal attempt at public appeasement. Countries and organizations have apologized for their actions and shortcomings towards the Jews, both during and after WWII. And now, we are seeing, and experiencing, an ugly re-emergence of Jew hatred and anti-Semitism (which never disappeared), even within the halls of different governments. Their mouths remain unchecked. Their behavior remains unpunished and their deadly poison continues to spread. How much is “enough”? History is being perverted by individuals and organizations that deny the Holocaust, an effort that is “a vile assault on the memory of the six million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany and its accomplices, a depraved twisting of the anti-Semitic knife. We must be unstinting in our efforts to keep the memory of our lost relatives – and the historical record – alive.”
If you are offended by what appears in the social media, say so. But, first ask yourself why you are offended by it. If you are offended by gross distortions of facts by public officials, whose salaries are paid by the public, say so. If historical truth is important to you, say so. But, make the effort not to offend in return.
The classic text attributed to Martin Niemöller is still valid today:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The LORD of hosts is His name: “If this fixed order departs from before Me”, declares the LORD, “then the offspring of Israel also will cease from being a nation before Me forever.” (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
Bless, be blessed and be a blessing.