08/27/2010 16:28
A threat to Holocaust memory
Efraim Zuroff

I welcome the opportunity to explain the significant dangers posed by the steps called for by the signees of the Prague Declaration.

There is no small degree of irony in Barry Rubin’s choice of the quote from the Prague Declaration that “those who neglect their past have no future” (Magazine, August 13) to promote his case for Jewish and Israeli support for that document which seeks to obtain official recognition that the crimes of communism were equivalent to those of Nazism and that both constitute a European “common legacy,” which must be recognized as such for the continent to ever achieve unity.

For it is precisely my concern to preserve the accurate narrative and memory of our Jewish past which motivates me to do whatever I can to inform the Israeli and Jewish public about the dangers of the Prague Declaration and its potentially dire consequences for the future of Holocaust memory and education.

As a proud member of the group which Rubin accuses of waging “a relentless campaign” against the June 3, 2008 document, I welcome the opportunity to explain the flaws in his arguments and the significant dangers posed by the practical steps called for by the signees.

The heart and core of Rubin’s case is his assertion that by rejecting the Prague Declaration, which promotes a historically false parity or equivalency between crimes by communists and those of the Nazis, we become accomplices in the decades-long efforts to hide the ravages of communist totalitarianism and repression, and even the crimes committed against Jews by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

THE OPPOSITION to the Prague Declaration has never been based on a desire to hide communist crimes, nor do we oppose any initiative to honor and commemorate their victims or punish those guilty of committing those crimes. On the contrary, any such steps are in fact long overdue and would help mitigate the “Holocaust envy” so prevalent in Eastern Europe, where there is widespread jealousy of the recognition and restitution accorded to the Nazis’ Jewish victims, in contrast to the general failure to sufficiently acknowledge the suffering of those victimized by the communists, compensate those wronged and prosecute those responsible.

Such steps are extremely important, but they do not turn communist crimes into a historical phenomenon equivalent to the devastation of the Holocaust. As the doyen of Holocaust historians, Prof. Yehuda Bauer, of Yad Vashem, pointed out so convincingly in his seminal essay on this subject (“Remembering accurately on International Holocaust Day,” The Jerusalem Post, January 25), “There is ground for deep concern about repeated attempts to equate the Nazi regime’s genocidal policies, with the Holocaust at their center, with other murderous or oppressive actions, an equation that not only trivializes and relativizes the genocide of the Jews... but is a mendacious revision of recent world history.”

In addition, it is important to emphasize that the practical steps called for in the Prague Declaration pose an immediate and long-term threat to Holocaust memory and commemoration, as well as the accuracy of the currently-accepted Holocaust historical narrative. Thus, for example, the initiative to designate August 23 as a joint memorial day for all victims of totalitarian regimes undermines the current status of the Holocaust as a unique tragedy and will ultimately bring into question the validity of a special memorial day for its victims.

A pluralistic, globalized world will undoubtedly prefer a more inclusive day of commemoration, and two days a year for the same tragedy will no doubt be considered excessive. In the same vein, the Institute of European Memory and Conscience which is planned would make institutions like Yad Vashem superfluous.

WHAT RUBIN fails to take into account are the hidden motives behind the Prague Declaration and its insidious agenda. If the real goal was to merely gain official recognition for communist crimes and international empathy for its victims, both important and legitimate goals, we could support the Prague Declaration without any reservations. By seeking equivalency with Holocaust crimes, however, it becomes clear that among its primary motivations is to help the countries of Eastern Europe deny, relativize and/or minimize their sins of collaboration with the Nazis in Holocaust crimes and change their status and image from that of perpetratornations to nations of victims.

Such a transformation would not only neutralize the justified criticism of their wartime crimes and failure since independence to bring to justice their unprosecuted Holocaust perpetrators, but would put them on the same pedestal as Holocaust survivors and earn them not only approbation and sympathy but financial compensation as well. And it is precisely this unthinkable scenario that we find so objectionable, and what we are trying to prevent when we criticize the Prague Declaration and fight against its acceptance and implementation.

Perhaps the best proof of its dangers can be found in one of Rubin’s assertions about the rationale behind the document. Thus according to him, “If the USSR had not backed Hitler during the 1939-1941 period, there would have very possibly not been a Second World War or Holocaust at all.”

Indeed an ostensibly powerful argument and one that underscores the choice of August 23, the day of the Soviet-Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact as a joint memorial day for all the victims of totalitarian regimes.

The only problem is that, as Bauer clearly demonstrates, the argument is baseless. In his words, “The greater threat to all of humanity was Nazi Germany, and it was the Soviet army that liberated Eastern Europe, was the central force that defeated Nazi Germany and thus saved Europe and the world from the Nazi nightmare... World War II was started by Nazi Germany, not the Soviet Union, and the responsibility of the 35 million dead in Europe, 29 million of them non-Jews, is that of Nazi Germany, not Stalin. To commemorate their victims equally is a distortion.”

So if a well-intentioned Jewish scholar has to resort to historical distortion to justify the Prague Declaration, it should be obvious why those who aspire to a better future based on a concern for the past totally reject this dangerous document.

The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel office.
His most recent book is Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice.