Silence about the Holocaust after 1945

Image: Holocaust memorial at Camp Westerbork, The Netherlands

Each of the great evils of the twentieth century — the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag — was shrouded in silence and concealment for decades after information became available to the world. In the case of the Gulag, the Soviet government exercised great effort to keep the facts of the prison camp system quiet, and the Communist parties of Western Europe minimized or obfuscated the facts that were publicly available. (Anne Applebaum documents much of this shameful record of secrecy and obfuscation in Gulag: A History.) A similar story of secrecy and lies can be told about the Holodomor.

Most inexcusable is the silence that greeted the facts of the Final Solution after the end of hostilities in 1945. The evidence of mass killing was everywhere — extermination camps, burial pits in Poland and Ukraine, first-person observations, the writings of contemporary observers like Vasily Grossman, and the Nuremberg trials. And yet there was little public recognition or discussion of the magnitude of the evil committed by the Nazi extermination plan, and their national collaborators, until the 1960s and 1970s.

Stimulated by discussions beginning in 1988 in Michigan at the first Holocaust Memorial Center in the United States, a group of scholars undertook to write a set of country studies on the reception of the Holocaust across Europe, North America, and Japan. The results are presented in a massive 1996 volume edited by David Wyman, The World Reacts to the Holocaust, which is highly relevant for our project of “confronting evil in history”. Most of the countries surveyed in this volume did not confront history honestly; rather, they constructed more comfortable narratives that minimized the involvement of their own citizens in the Holocaust, and sometimes minimized and “normalized” the mass killings of Jews themselves. In his introduction David Wyman writes that during the 1950s “the most difficult and sensitive questions about the Holocaust had barely been raised. These issues included … questions about the guilt of the German people, complicity and collaboration in the countries under German occupation, the failure of non-Jews to attempt to save their Jewish neighbors, and the very limited rescue efforts on the part of the outside world. Nor were these issues confronted during the 1950s; instead, in that decade the Holocaust all but disappeared from public consciousness in most of the world” (xix).

Here is the table of contents and list of countries studied:

The book demonstrates an important feature of Holocaust history — the fact that much of the killing, and many of the documents, took place in Eastern Europe, in countries that came under Soviet control during and after the war. The Soviet government was slow to make available to the public records and documents that could provide a reasonably full understanding of the Holocaust in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. Wyman writes, “Until the later 1980s these [Soviet bloc] countries all followed the Soviet Union’s approach to the Holocaust: they universalized it and forced it into a Communist ideological mold. The destruction of the Jews was seen as merely a small part of racist fascism’s murder of millions of Eastern European civilians” (xxi).

A number of the essays make the point that media events played an important role in Western European and North American countries in bringing awareness of the Holocaust to a broad audience. These include the US television series Holocaust (1978), Marcel Ophuls’ two-part French documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), and Claude Lanzmann’s French documentary film Shoah (1985).

Here I will provide highlights from three of the country studies, to give a sense of the depth and detail of the essays. There is still much to be learned about the Holocaust and the way that various publics and governments have been willing to face the truth about their pasts honestly.

France, David Weinberg

David Weinberg’s article on documents the French government’s desire to “sanitize” the history of the Vichy years and the circumstances of the deportation of sixty to seventy thousand Jews from France to Nazi extermination camps. The issue of return of spoliated property — homes, businesses, other forms of pre-war wealth — was highly contentious in France in the postwar years. Further, thousands of Jewish children had been separated from their parents, and the task of reuniting families was both logistically and socially difficult. But most significant was the political interest that postwar governments had in concealing or distorting the collaboration that had occurred during the German occupation and the Vichy regime. “For much of the early postwar period the tragic events surrounding French involvement in the Final Solution were masked by governmental concerns with reconstruction and reconciliation…. The result was the gradual emergence of a national myth that viewed the overwhelming majority of Frenchmen during World War II as resisters to Nazism and portrayed the Vichy regime as an aberration whose traitorous deeds resulted from the venality and fanaticism of a crazed few” (18). One result was a resurgence of the far right in France: “Government amnesties brought many collaborators back to France after years in exile, and in the early fifties there was a noticeable increase in neo-fascist and neo-Nazi activity on the part of the extreme Right” (19). Weinberg also documents a resurgence of anti-Semitism in French society and politics in the 1950s. He describes the highly convoluted development of French political culture during the 1960s and 1970s, in which anti-colonialism converged to some degree with anti-Zionist, or anti-Israel, sentiment among activist youth. An important event in shifting French public awareness of the Holocaust and the Vichy years was the capture and trial in 1983 of Klaus Barbie, the chief of the Gestapo in Lyons and the prime mover in the deportation of French Jews. Barbie was also a notorious murderer of captured members of the Resistance (including Marc Bloch). Preparations for trial created a great deal of debate in France, and Barbie was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison, dying in prison in 1991. (Here is a detailed treatment of the Barbie trial; link.) Weinberg closes on a pessimistic note: French leaders as recently as Mitterrand preferred to remain silent about the crimes and collaborations of the Vichy years (35), and there has not yet been a clear and honest reckoning of the war years.

Poland, Michael Steinlauf

Poland’s postwar history was determined by the imposition of a Soviet-style Communist regime. Returning Jews were unwelcome in Poland, in large part because of conflict over spoliated properties. Numerous pogroms took place in the first two years following the end of the war, including the shocking pogrom at Kielce that resulted in the murder of at least 42 people (112). (Steinlauf gives some credence to the possibility that the NKVD may have deliberately provoked the violence at Kielce.) Steinlauf describes 1956 as an important turning point in Polish political history, the “Polish road to socialism”, resulting in an anti-Stalinist regime that was more pragmatic than its predecessors. But this change of regime also permitted a resurgence of anti-Semitic attitudes in society and within political elites. Largescale emigration from Poland to Israel and other countries took place, reflecting the conviction by the Jewish population that Poland would never be a welcoming home for them. The Communist government — before and after the change of orientation in 1956 — continued to ignore the Nazi extermination of Jews in favor of “Poles and citizens of other nationalities”. “Under Communism, Auschwitz became a monument to internationalism that commemorated the ‘resistance and martyrdom’ of ‘Poles and citizens of other nationalities,’ In consultation with the International Auschwitz Committee, a group of survivors and relatives of victims dominated by veterans of the largely Communist Auschwitz underground, barracks in the original work cam were turned over to twenty countries for use as ‘national pavilions.’ One of these structures became a ‘Jewish pavilion'” (117). Every part of this story represents denial: denial of the Jewish identities of the victims, erasure of the Nazi extermination goals of the camp, and inflation of the number of victims in order to suggest that comparable numbers of “Poles, Russian prisoners of war, and other non-Jews” were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “Auschwitz could thereby emerge as the central symbol of Polish martyrdom, but within an inclusive internationalist framework” (117). Even the monument at Treblinka, where only Jews were killed and which is specific about the Jewish identities of the victims there, was publicly described in Poland as “800,000 citizens of European nations” (119).

This pattern of Soviet obfuscation resulted in a national narrative “whose effect was to marginalize, or ‘ghettoize,’ its subject” (120). Poland’s political history between 1956 and 1989 was complex and contentious, and anti-Semitism played a recurring role. 1968 manifested a student movement in Poland, state repression, and a serious official intensification of anti-Semitic actions and policies, in the form of an anti-Zionist campaign. (This is the period when Bauman and Kolakowski were force to leave Poland; linklink.) The period of the Solidarity movement, according to Steinlauf, produced greater honesty and openness about the tragedy of the extermination of the majority of Poland’s Jewish population. Steinlauf quotes an especially interesting literary exchange between Czesław Miłosz and the literary critic Jan Błoński, concerning Miłosz’s poem about the Warsaw ghetto “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto”; (link): “Błoński explained that Poles had blocked the memory of this part of their history because ‘when we consider the past, we want to derive moral advantage from it … we want to be completely clean. We want to be also — and only — victims.’ … Błoński suggested that the only remedy was to see the past fully, without defensiveness, and then to ‘acknowledge our own guilt, and ask for forgiveness'” (139).

Steinlauf depicts the period in Poland from 1989 to the mid-1990s as one in which the situation has improved. There is a greater willingness to speak openly about anti-Semitism in Poland — past and present. Historical memorials have been corrected to more accurately reflect the overwhelming majority of Jews killed in Sobibor and Treblinka (144). And Steinlauf records the decision by the Polish government in 1990 to correct the inscriptions at Auschwitz, replacing reference to “four million people” murdered at Auschwitz with this passage:Let this place remain for eternity as a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. About one and a half million men, women, children and infants, mainly Jews from different countries of Europe, were murdered here. The world was silent. Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1940-1945. (145)

Steinlauf concludes his article with these hopeful words (in 1996): “Half a century after witnessing the Holocaust, Poles are freely confronting the memory of the experience for the first time. It is far too soon, however, to speculate about the meaning of this confrontation. It will gradually assume a coherent form only in the decades to come” (145). The final qualification is prophetic, since in the past decade Poland has seen nationalist politicians and legislators seeking to — once again — silence honest acknowledgement of Polish responsibility during the time of the Holocaust.

Lithuania, Dov Levin

Dov Levin notes that the culpability of Lithuanians in the Final Solution is deep. Even before the German invasion began, murderous pogroms occurred in many communities in Lithuania. “Unlike the pogroms in Russia and Ukraine at the turn of the century, which had been organized mainly by the anti-Semitic and archconservative political vigilantes known as the Black Hundreds, in Lithuania, especially in the smaller towns, Jews were actually murdered by former neighbors, classmates, and customers” (333). Only days before the German invasion a massacre in Kaunas (Slobodka) of 1200 men, women, and children was undertaken by “armed Lithuanians who called themselves partisans”. 2000 more Jews were murdered in the same place in the next few days (333). After the arrival of German forces and Einsatzgruppe A, “Lithuanians were soon accepted … as auxiliaries attached to German units” (333). 90% of Lithuania’s Jews perished by the end of the Holocaust in Lithuania, the majority before December 1941.

Following the retreat of the German forces from Lithuania following the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviet Union re-established control over Lithuania. It enforced its party line concerning the Holocaust, especially concerning the deaths of Jews, emphasizing “innocent Soviet citizens” rather than Jews as the primary victims. A quantity of documentary evidence was collected by the Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, but the museum was only permitted to operate for four years. Upon closure its valuable materials and documents were stored in a variety of places, including “book depositories of the Lithuanian SSR, where it was inaccessible to scholars and other interested persons” (338). Soviet authorities soon became unwilling to pursue complaints about stolen property, collaborators, and other crimes that had occurred during the German occupation (337). “Although many war criminals were eventually arrested and tried, the authorities generally avoided dwelling on the widespread nature of Lithuanian wartime collaboration with the enemy” (339). Levin observes that conditions for the surviving or returning Jewish community improved in the post-Stalin period, and there was an increase in publication of books and articles about the experience of the Nazi period in the 1960s and 1970s (340). However, diaspora Lithuanian communities began a campaign of obfuscation concerning Lithuanian responsibility for the killings of Jews (342). Within Lithuania the situation was different, according to Levin; “by the end of 1987 and early 1988, articles began to appear in the Lithuanian press … severely criticizing past sins of both omission and commission in reference to the memory of the Holocaust” (343). After the collapse of Communist rule in Lithuania the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian Republic issued a statement in May 1990 signed by President Landsbergis, according to which the Supreme Council “unreservedly condemn[ed] the genocide committed against the Jewish people during the years of the Hitlerite occupation in Lithuania and state[d] with sorrow that among the henchmen who served the occupying power there were also citizens of Lithuania” (345). Levin notes the subsequent emergence of extreme anti-Semitic nationalists in Lithuania. He also highlights several important themes or myths that have taken hold in Lithuania that have the effect of misleading the current generation about the grim realities of the past: idealization of the past concerning Jewish-Lithuanian relations; symmetry between Jewish and Lithuanian behavior during World War II; tendentious exaggeration or distortion of proportions; reciprocity in punishment of war criminals; and euphoria about the present and utopian optimism for the future (347). 

Assessment

These are just three of the fascinating country cases included in The World Reacts to the Holocaust. Every essay contains material that will be surprising to the non-specialist. There are common themes, however. Both in the Soviet bloc and in Western Europe there is a residual level of anti-Semitism that expresses itself periodically. In all parts of Europe there have been political and nationalistic reasons for concealing or obfuscating the past — for the sake of national unity, for the sake of economic progress, for a desire to move on. And yet each case makes it clear that no country can thrive if it is unwilling to honestly examine its past, to reckon with the inexcusable things that its citizens have done in prior decades, and to commit to a process of recognition, acknowledgement, and sorrow for the murders and atrocities committed in its name. Finally, it is important to recall that each of these narratives ends in the early 1990s. Much has happened in European politics that has given new force to right-wing nationalism, populism, and anti-Semitism that makes the overall cautious optimism of the volume quite uncertain. It would be highly interesting to see followup articles on these countries to see how things have developed in the twenty-six years since the volume was first published.

(A few examples of poetry relevant to the question of remembrance of the Holocaust are collected in a separate post; link. Powerful and evocative poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Russia), Wim Ramaker (Netherlands), Czesław Miłosz (Poland), and Vasily Grossman (Ukraine) are provided there.) 

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