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Opinion: How the Holocaust Haunts Eastern Europe

One of my big shocks upon arriving in America from Ukraine in the 1980s was learning that the United States had museums to commemorate the Holocaust.

We Soviet Jews didn’t meticulously construct exhibits — we walked past Nazi killing grounds on the way to buy groceries. Eastern Europe is crisscrossed with ravines holding bones of the millions who, instead of being deported to concentration camps, were massacred on the spot.

Three times cursed are the dead Jews of the old Communist bloc: gunned down outside their towns and villages, ignored and whitewashed by the Soviet Union, and now, their killers glorified by the resurging nationalism of today’s Eastern European governments.

A German soldier aiming his rifle at a woman and her child in Ivangorod, Ukraine, in 1942.

Holocaust remembrance posed a threat to the atheist Kremlin dictatorship, which didn’t tolerate unsanctioned monuments, houses of worship or any location that could become a potential focal point for ethnic and religious organization; additionally, acknowledging the ethnic roots of the genocide would invariably draw attention to the Soviet Union’s own anti-Semitism. As a result, the Holocaust sites went unmourned and unmarked.

The ravines where oblivious schoolchildren played by day and drunk men sprawled at night taunted Soviet Jews, reminding us of our impotence under Communist rule. “Von tam” (“over there”), Jewish fathers whispered to sons in Russian while discreetly nodding at trash-covered pits such as Babi Yar in Kiev and Drobitsky Yar in my home city of Kharkiv. “Von tam” was a rite of passage, like a bar mitzvah in the land where the rabbis had been sent to the gulags and synagogues were refurbished into Komsomol youth centers.

Even after being shamed into confronting its silence by Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s seminal 1961 poem “Babi Yar,” the Kremlin refused to fully acknowledge the Holocaust. Instead of ignoring the dead Jews, Moscow conscripted them into the Soviet mythos of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II was known. Inconspicuous plaques mentioning “Soviet victims of Nazi aggression” were placed at a handful of the larger sites, where they joined the thousands of plaques and memorials on every corner of the Soviet Union. The K.G.B. continued to monitor the ravines for signs of organized prayer, and the Soviet Jews remained consigned to whispers.

It was only during the late ’80s, with restrictions loosened by Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, that the Holocaust began appearing in the Soviet press. On Oct. 4, 1991, two months before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a monument to Jewish victims was erected in Kiev. “Today at Babi Yar the Spirits Will Rest,” proclaimed The New York Times’ headline about the opening ceremony. And so they could. For a while.

The Nazis did not act alone. The Holocaust, especially in Eastern Europe, was made possible with the aid of local governments and paramilitaries, which rounded up and massacred Jews, sometimes in the service of the Nazis, sometimes on their own volition.

Today, these collaborators — groups and individuals responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews — are being glorified and rehabilitated as part of the ultranationalism surging across Eastern Europe. Nationalists seek to rally around men who fought for independence against both Russia and Germany; unfortunately, the World War II-era figures being chosen had expressed their vision for independence by murdering Jews.

In 1947, Josef Tiso, a Slovak priest and Nazi collaborator, was hanged for crimes against humanity because of his eager deportation of Slovakia’s Jews. Today, he is celebrated with parades and memorials across Slovakia. Marches commemorating local SS units wind through Baltic capitals. With festivals, marches and street names, Ukraine has been glorifying paramilitaries responsible for slaughtering thousands of Jews. Hungary and Croatia are both whitewashing their World War II-era Nazi collaborationist governments. Lithuania has gone so far as to bring criminal charges against Jewish partisans who fought Nazi collaborators.

Today’s Eastern European states are, in their way, following in the Kremlin’s footsteps by recasting Nazi collaborators as “fellow victims” and “freedom fighters,” while whitewashing their anti-Semitism and participation in the Holocaust. Particularly ominous are recent steps taken by some governments, which emulate the Soviets by enforcing the official state narrative using censorship and the threat of imprisonment.

In 2015, Ukraine passed laws making it a criminal offense to deny the heroic nature of two World War II paramilitaries. Earlier this month, Kiev made headlines by banning “Stalingrad,” an award-winning book by Antony Beevor, an acclaimed British historian, on account of a single paragraphthat mentions a Ukrainian unit killing Jewish children. Poland’s ruling far-right Law and Justice Party proposed legislation making it illegal to accuse Poles of participating in the Holocaust, and targeted authors and journalists for daring to say otherwise. Once again, the Jews of Eastern Europe may face persecution and censorship for honoring their slain.

During the Cold War, with Eastern European Jews incapacitated by Communist dictatorships, the American Jewish community was at the vanguard of Holocaust remembrance. One of the most touching revelations I had in the United States was learning that in 1982, when Babi Yar still had no plaques mentioning the slain Jews, Americans had built a Babi Yar memorial in Denver. Today, however, the American Jewish community — including Jewish lawmakers in Washington — is largely silent about the widespread Holocaust distortion being carried out by Eastern European allies.

Breaking that silence is imperative, especially given the current global rise of anti-Semitism and the disturbing correlation between Holocaust revisionism and violence against living Jews. American Jews are already waking up to Holocaust denial on social media and vandalism of Holocaust museums at home. They should not forget to cast their gaze to the Nazi killing fields of Eastern Europe, where old battles are still being waged, and the perpetually inconvenient dead can find no rest.

(c) 2018 The New York Times

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