As Lev Golinkin recently wrote in The New York Times, 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.” Like those who wish to convert dead Jews to Christianity, universalists seek to assimilate dead Jews into the mythos of the dominant culture. Either way, we are diminished and disrespected.
Meanwhile, dominant cultures seek to sanitize and fortify their own past. Ukraine banned a book because it stated that Ukrainians killed Jews. This week, Poland passed a law making it illegal to accuse “the Polish nation” of complicity in the Holocaust, particularly by using phrases such as “Polish death camp.” While, of course, the camps and Poland were under German control, it is also true that many Poles collaborated.
The Jewish Shoah experience went mostly unspoken after the war. The building of Holocaust museums was supposed to elevate the Shoah into public consciousness. But these museums were built with government money and came with political calls and Jewish promises to expand and universalize the Holocaust’s lessons. Other ethnic cleansings like Rwanda and Kosovo are worth studying, but they are not the Holocaust.
An exhibit now at the United Nations, a display of handmade butterflies inspired by the poem, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” is, unintentionally, an exhibit exposing flaws in the universalist approach. To build interest and sympathy with the children of Terezin (where the poem was written), students in different countries were asked to decorate butterflies, one for each child killed in the Holocaust. The students were told to imagine that the dead children might have grown up to be LeBron James or Miley Cyrus, rather than contributors to the Jewish people. Though the exhibit means well, it seems to suggest that the murder of Jews is a tragedy, but less so the eradication of Jewish religion and culture. The United Nations is an eerie battleground for this debate, with its dozens of annual anti-Israel resolutions that threaten and demean Israel in ways rarely seen since 1945.