There are many complex issues at play when dealing with the subject of Holocaust memorialization in post-Communist countries. First and foremost, it is crucial that governments enforce a zero-tolerance policy for all anti-Semitic and other xenophobic behavior. Equally imperative is to distinguish between Nazi-era crimes and those committed by the Communist regime.
European governments are currently trending toward combining all victims of war crimes and persecution undertaken during World War II and in its wake into a single category -- crimes committed by totalitarian regimes. Particularly pervasive throughout the former communist countries is the linkage of crimes committed by the Communists and those crimes carried out by the Nazis.
This predilection not only minimizes both sets of crimes, but also creates a pernicious moral equivalency between the two, which is factually irreconcilable. This phenomenon is epitomized by The Prague Declaration of 2008, which calls for a recognition of Communism and Nazism as a "common legacy" and total integration when dealing with the two genocides. It calls for an adjustment of all European history textbooks and promotes a joint memorial day across Europe to honor the victims of all totalitarian regimes. In a particularly ironic if not perfidious stroke, the collective memorial date recommended is August 23, 1939 -- the anniversary of the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact, the treaty of non-aggression between Germany and the USSR.
There is deep empathy with the people of former communist countries who suffered horribly, and who have yet to achieve recognition of their suffering. It is impossible to compare human suffering. There are no murders, tortures or rapes that are easier than any other.
This, however, does not relinquish our paramount responsibility to accurately identify the source of suffering -- and to ensure that proper distinctions are made. The consolidation of paradigmatic evil -- the Nazi -- with that of the communist regime does no service in the education of the depravity and suffering wrought from either reign.
From the Jewish vantage point, the situation described above at once minimizes the absolute "unprecedentedness" of the crimes against the Jews during the Holocaust. Worse is the underlying prejudice of a more subtle but profound aspect of this linkage. Of the more popular anti-Semitic canards is that Communism and, more specifically, Soviet Bolshevism, is a Jewish conspiracy. According to German political theorist Hannah Arendt, this fabrication became one of the most efficient fictions of Nazi propaganda and is still a popular anti-Semitic prevarication today. In this combinative mise en scène, the archetype perpetrator is portrayed as a hybrid Gollum comprised of both Nazi butcher and Jewish communist victim/executioner. Like the Antichrist -- depicted in medieval Christian literature as the child of a union between the devil and a Jewish harlot seeking the annihilation of Christendom -- both of these monsters deserve no less than death, and behind them both, stand the Jew.
As specialist on anti-Semitism Robert Wistrich has taught us:
"Demonizing others is not confined only to Jews. Scapegoating and the projection of evil onto humans who have been demonized is a universal human problem. Not only does it exorcise unavowed guilt, create boundaries between in-and out-groups, help to defile social, religious, and national identity, but it helps construct a moral order against the dangerous, disruptive, defiling Other."
In the present situation of post-Communist Eastern Europe, we are witnessing a diffusion and deflection of responsibility for participation in crimes committed by the Nazis and their willing local accomplices. It is revisionist history in action. Commemorative and memorial activities that are taking place and are momentously important to survivors and their families are often manipulated as rhetorical devices in the advance of social and political agendas of the overseers. Worse still, these frequently vacuous activities are trumpeted as a panacea for responding to societal anti-Semitism, a smokescreen obscuring roiling anti-Semitic and anti-Israel undercurrents from within the host society.
Anti-Semitism is experiencing a precipitous rise in Europe. The Jew is being vilified in sophisticated and nefarious ways. History is being rewritten. Those who appreciate the societal repercussions of such behavior must remain ever vigilant. If not, we will relive the chilling finale of the famous Pastor Martin Niemoller poem that U.S. Ambassador to Lativa V.E. Mark Andrew Pekala closed with while speaking earlier this week in Riga to a room full of ambassadors and scholars from Eastern Europe and around the world, during a conference on Holocaust museums and memorials in post-Communist countries: "...When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out."
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