Jerusalem — Holocaust memory, or rather the lack of it, stalks the Trump White House. That troubling political reality has kept officials at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum, on their toes in the first 100 days of the Trump administration.
When the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in February failed to include any reference to Jews, Yad Vashem, which sees itself as the guardian of the memory of the Holocaust, took President Trump to task, though not by name. Its statement read, in part, “Yad Vashem emphasizes the imperative to understand the Holocaust in a historically accurate manner,” and it stressed that the Shoah was an unprecedented genocide of Jews motivated by racism and anti-Semitism.
And last week, when White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, stunningly, that Hitler didn’t resort to using chemical weapons like Syrian President Bashar Assad, Yad Vashem’s reaction was one of the most cutting: It told him to simply visit its website and educate himself about history. (Realizing his mistake, Spicer eventually apologized.)
So as the commemorative siren sounds here on Monday to mark Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the whole of Israel grinds to a halt, Holocaust memory is now at the center of political discourse here and in the U.S. (It could also be a deciding factor in far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s run for the French presidency.) And with it, questions about how we commemorate the Shoah and ensure that it is understood accurately.
But while Yad Vashem reacted strongly to the Trump administration’s gaffes, in some countries where problems with Holocaust commemoration run very deep, the institution’s reaction appears much gentler. And some historians wonder if Israel’s diplomatic considerations — significant as they may be — could be tempering its criticism towards nations that take dubious stances on commemoration.
Dovid Katz: Yad Vashem has become “a legitimizing agent for state-sponsored bodies that obfuscate the Holocaust and rewrite history.”
Perhaps the most controversial of all of Yad Vashem’s relationships is with Lithuania. One Jewish historian based there, Dovid Katz, told The Jewish Week that by cooperating with the country’s Holocaust commission, Yad Vashem has become “a legitimizing agent for state-sponsored bodies that obfuscate the Holocaust and rewrite history.”
Efraim Zuroff, one of the world’s best-known Nazi hunters, said in an interview that he is uncomfortable with the Lithuania commission, and offers a stark reason why Yad Vashem is participating in a venture that, on the admission of its own staff, has made them uneasy: diplomacy.
To illustrate his point Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, noted that Lithuania belongs to a very exclusive club — the clique of just six countries that stood up for Israel in October at UNESCO, when this United Nations organization passed a resolution denying a Jewish connection to the Old City of Jerusalem.
“It’s all politics,” Zuroff said of Yad Vashem’s participation in the Lithuania commission and the tolerance shown to other countries where dubious readings of history thrive. “Lithuania voted against the Palestinians at UNESCO — this is one example.”
Yad Vashem sends representatives to Lithuania’s Holocaust commission, despite the fact that, in a Kafkaesque turning-of-the-tables, the very same commission investigated Yitzhak Arad, a survivor and former Yad Vashem director, in relation to alleged acts against Lithuanian non-Jews when he was fighting as a partisan. This probing of Arad, who wasa a member of the commission, was just nine years ago and at the time, Yad Vashem’s chairman, Avner Shalev, took a tough and principled stand. He accused Lithuania of “historical revisionism and distortion,” that the country was equating Nazis and partisans — and he bolted from the commission. (So did the noted British historian Sir Martin Gilbert.)
But today, Yad Vashem is back on the commission.
The investigation of Arad didn’t come out of the blue. It was motivated by an ideology that is alive and well in Lithuania. Equivalence is drawn between Nazi killings and communist killings, with a subtext that Jews were not only victims but also, acting as communists, perpetrators. Even the name of the commission in which Yad Vashem participates is interpreted by many as a nod to the Nazi-communist equivalence that often colors Holocaust commemoration there. It is called the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania.
Dovid Katz has called this equivalence the “double genocide” theory, dismissed it as “complete nonsense” and led a furious reaction against it. Like Zuroff, Katz believes that Israel’s diplomatic considerations are behind Israel’s involvement.
The Lithuanian novelist Ruta Vanagaite said she believes that the commission is a smokescreen that simply obscures a reality that the Lithuanian establishment is failing to face up to the country’s Holocaust-era past. “It’s pretending that it’s investigating, but it doesn’t do anything.” It is “like a shield to give the impression that something is being done in Lithuania.”
Vanagaite speaks as the Lithuanian author who has, more than other, tried to put her country’s past on the national agenda. Last year, she teamed up with Zuroff to co-author a book of interviews with witnesses to the atrocities perpetrated by Lithuanians against their Jewish neighbors. “Musiskiai” (“Our People”) garnered major attention in Lithuania.
But she feels that the commission will do nothing to push forward the discussion that she has sparked. “It’s letting down the historical truth; it’s letting down the victims.”
The worry about commemoration in Lithuania isn’t limited to the equivalence of Nazi and communist killings; it also relates to the fact that many anti-communist heroes were also murderers on behalf of the Nazis, but their memories are safeguarded. Just last month, it became clear that the pedestal on which these killers stand is defended at the highest level of the state.
At Lithuania’s Genocide and Resistance Centre, two wartime leaders, Jonas Noreika and Kazys Skrpa, are presented as heroes. The former took part in the mass murder of Lithuanian Jews in the summer of 1941. The latter was founder of the anti-Semitic Lithuanian Activist Front and denounced Jews in speeches, yet he is presented at the centre as trying to save Jews from deportation.
A Los Angeles man with Lithuanian citizenship, Grant Gochin, filed an official complaint, but in late March, Lithuania’s parliamentary ombudsman, Augustinas Normantas, refused to open an investigation. Arad has noted that in Lithuania since 2006, actions have been taken “whose purpose is to obfuscate the events of the Holocaust during the period of German occupation, through which Lithuanians assume for themselves the role of also having been, allegedly, Holocaust victims at the hands of the Soviet occupiers.”
The “double genocide” claim goes beyond Lithuania. Katz noted, “In the Baltic states and parts of Eastern Europe, people are aware of the Holocaust but they’re taught a rewritten version that it’s one of two equal Holocausts, which it isn’t.” Key “double genocide” proponents include Latvia and Croatia. In Estonia — another country that stood up for Israel in October at UNESCO alongside Lithuania — local Waffen-SS fighters are classed by a 2012 law as freedom fighters “repressed by the Soviets.” They receive financial benefits that go with the status. Critics like Katz say that Yad Vashem isn’t coming down hard enough on any of these countries.
David Silberklang, Yad Vashem’s senior historian, admitted that when Yad Vashem was asked to rejoin the body in 2012 it was “reluctant” but said that it weighed the decision and received some assurances that things would be run with more integrity. He said that there are small, positive developments in Lithuania, and that Yad Vashem decided it would be best to be involved with the establishment. Yet Silberklang admitted that problematic attitudes towards the Holocaust are “deeply engrained” and said that decision involves a “gamble.”
Silberklang noted that since Yad Vashem’s renewed involvement, the commission has not been pushing the ethos of equivalence between Nazi and communist crimes, and said that if this changes “we will have to revisit our participation”; he added that “if that [equivalence] does come up, there will be a crisis.”
“Yad Vashem is Israel’s national memorial, but this does not mean it is an agent of the state in any way.”
“If there are good signs, perhaps we should encourage these, but again it’s a gamble,” Silberklang continued. He rejects suggestions that Yad Vashem’s positions are determined by political and diplomatic considerations, saying that it acts as an “independent institution” and insisting: “We make our decisions based on what is the right thing to do.”
He stressed: “Yad Vashem is Israel’s national memorial, but this does not mean it is an agent of the state in any way.”
He said that Yad Vashem treads carefully when it comes to diplomacy. “There are many more shades of gray and many ways to address things with different governments. Is the best way always to scream out loud? Not always.”
If diplomacy doesn’t play a part in decision-making, how is Yad Vashem’s path decided? Silberklang said with specific reference to countries where there were collaborators: “There are different ways to approach things in different places. If we can promote open discussion of [a country’s] role in what happened, that’s part of what we seek to achieve, but how we achieve this in places may be different.” Regarding countries in general, he said: “Each case is its own case,” declining to discuss the specific considerations.
And so, there are countries that are openly criticized and others, like Lithuania, that are handled very differently, but the precise logic behind the variant stances isn’t known. It’s unclear why in Poland, Yad Vashem seems to have more of a free hand to make its influence and its opinions felt directly than in the Baltic states. The institution maintains a lot of contact with “the courageous ones” in Polish academia, said Silberklang.
Historians who point to less flattering aspects of Poles’ actions during the Nazi years face growing disapproval from the establishment. Two years ago, the Polish government opened a libel investigation against one Polish-American historian, Jan Tomasz Gross, who dared to suggest that Poles killed large number of Jews during World War II. President Andrzej Duda was interested in stripping Gross, a Princeton University professor, of a national honor he holds for his scholarship. And there are fears that a bill endorsed by the government in August could further stifle scholarship.
The bill would put people who refer to “Polish death camps” instead of “Nazi camps” in prison for up to three years, and criminalize accusing Poland of international war crimes or crimes against peace or humanity. Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Dina Porat, responded last summer by saying there is a fear “of the Polish government rewriting history to whitewash Second World War Poland and present it to the world as a nation that was a pure victim that should be pitied and compensated.”
The actions of Yad Vashem’s Jerusalem-based officials are only part of the institution’s influence in Europe. Often it’s the many hundreds of people who have spent short stints in its International School — it was established two years after the fall of the Soviet Union to get the story of the Jewish genocide told in countries where for years it was obscured — who are challenging local understandings.
Even in European countries where the “double genocide” idea isn’t dominant, reluctance to talk about persecution of Jews can still run deep, and teachers like Silvia Peto Dittel of Budapest can find they are going against the grain. She became Yad Vashem’s local representative, alongside her high school teaching, after working for years in Hungary’s state Holocaust commemoration body, feeling that it wasn’t communicating the right message about the Shoah.
“I have teachers saying they want to apply for a Yad Vashem course and the head teachers of public schools don’t want to sign the application because they don’t want to speak about the Holocaust, and especially not in [Yad Vashem’s] way,” Peto Dittel said. Some head teachers, she said, will even intimate that if teachers are interested in going to Yad Vashem, they are closet Jews.
When teachers do go to Yad Vashem, and run classes on their return, they impact precisely these opinions. “I have contact with thousands of students and see people come in with preconceptions and prejudices, and you see how personalizing Holocaust stories affects their views,” Peto Dittel said.
She first went to Yad Vashem 10 years ago, and found that Hungarian Holocaust education was better than in the communist era, when “there was no approach at all.” Going to Jerusalem, she said, gave her a whole new perspective.
She has studied the Holocaust in Hungary, Germany and America, but finds Yad Vashem’s way “unique.” This is because “keeping the memory of the victims alive is something that no one can manage like Yad Vashem”; it’s a result of the balance the institution strikes between intellectual and emotional emphasis, and because it empowers teachers to push beyond facts and figures.
Every lesson that Peto Dittel gives on the Holocaust has become entirely different since she went to Jerusalem. “You don’t start and finish with details — with names, numbers, historical dates, places or acts of the perpetrators. You start and finish with a person, a family or a community.”
But in some respects, teaching the Yad Vashem way is getting harder in Hungary. “There is resistance,” Peto Dittel said. “There is a very strong centralized system of education, which is getting stronger.” Yet some of the factors that make her work harder make her more determined to do it, such as the fact that in the era of the far-right Jobbik Party, she encounters “both teachers and students from the far right.” These people, she feels, have the most to gain from Yad Vashem’s approach.
The Hungarians that Peto Dittel dispatches to Jerusalem will join the ranks of thousands who have studied in Yad Vashem’s International School; the school trains more than 300 teachers a year from former Soviet countries.
In Poland also, Yad Vashem’s influence is also felt through locals. Silberklang speaks with pride about contact with independent-minded Polish scholars. “The contact with them is in the atmosphere of current Polish government trying to dictate what is historical fact and dictate discussion,” he said. “Their contact with us can keep them going.”
In some cases, this can be very practical. The Polish scholar Barbara Engelking draws conclusions that are unpopular with the Polish establishment in her research, but Yad Vashem is publishing a version of her new book, which is expected to shield Engelking from government attacks.