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Don’t Learn from Russians about the Holocaust

Izabella Tabarovsky

What was striking for some of us long-term Russia watchers about the statement by the White House regarding the International Holocaust Remembrance Day was not just the obvious omission of references to Jews, but the reference to “innocent people” who suffered in the Holocaust. The phrase was strikingly reminiscent of the language that the Soviets used for decades when describing Holocaust victims.

Nearly 3 million Jews—half of all the Holocaust victims—died in the “Holocaust by bullets” in the Nazi-occupied Soviet territories. Yet the Soviets systematically denied that Jews were particular targets of Nazi atrocities. No memorialization or study of the Holocaust took place, and as a general rule, no monuments were put up over mass execution sites.

In the few places with some sort of memorial, the inscriptions referred to victims as “peaceful Soviet citizens.” The phrase is infamous among scholars of the Holocaust in the USSR because it negated the fact that the vast majority of victims (if not all) at mass execution sites were Jews.

This is the phrase that is etched on the Soviet monument at the Babi Yar ravine in Ukraine, where 33,771 Jews were murdered over a two-day period in September 1941 and possibly 50,000 more over the following months. A version of this phrase (“peaceful citizens of Rostov-on-Don”) is etched on the memorial at Zmiyevska Balka in the south of Russia, where 27,000 Jews were murdered in August of 1942.

It was this history that came to mind as I read about the “innocent people” in the White House’s statement. But things didn’t end there. As the White House tried to defend itself against the storm of criticism that erupted over the omission of a specific reference to Jews, it chose another piece of Soviet-speak: it said that it chose that formulation because, as Vox reported, “other victims also suffered and died in the Holocaust.”

Attempts to universalize the Holocaust and deny the specificity of Jewish suffering are not anything new, and one of the best and most succinct responses belongs to Eli Wiesel. As Wiesel received the Congressional Gold Medal from Ronald Reagan in 1985, he said: “I have learned that the Holocaust was a unique and uniquely Jewish event, albeit with universal implications. Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

The specific way in which the Holocaust took place in the USSR throws Wiesel’s statement into even sharper relief. In the Soviet territories, the Holocaust unfolded with particular speed and brutality. Jews began to be murdered right where they were, the moment the Nazis crossed over into the Soviet territory in June 1941. They were murdered in the streets of their towns and villages and in the forests and ravines just outside.

When the Nazis bothered to establish makeshift, short-term ghettos, they rarely bothered surrounding them with fences. With the local populations terrorized and incentivized to betray Jews or simply murder them, the Nazis knew that the Jews had nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. Of all the groups they targeted, only the Jews did not have a right and an opportunity to live.

When all was said and done—in essence, by the end of 1942, a bare year and a half after the invasion—the Nazis had murdered, with local help, nearly 98% of the 3 million Jews who had remained during the occupation. This rate of death is incomparable to that of any other group that suffered from Nazi persecution. It is incomparable even to the rate of survival among European Jews: 25% of Jews who remained in occupied Amsterdam survived, while 60% of Belgian Jews and 75% of French Jews survived the occupation.

After the Nazis were done with the murders, the Soviets returned and, for their own ideological and political reasons, imposed a policy of silence and denial by employing, in part, the notion of universalization. When criticized, the standard response was to say that emphasizing one ethnic group’s suffering diminished the suffering of all.

This Soviet-era response is still very much part of the fabric of thinking in all post-Soviet states that experienced Nazi occupation and became sites of the Jewish tragedy - even those that are making strenuous effort to separate themselves from their Soviet past and change the Soviet way of thinking.

And herein lies the deeper issue inherent in the problematic use of language and history that were on display in the White House’s statement.

The Soviets’ decision to cast a shroud of silence over the centrality of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust stemmed in part from their need to win the support of the local populations, which had to be brought back into the fold after the Nazi occupation. The Soviets had to reintegrate and re-indoctrinate them after prolonged periods of being subjected to Nazi propaganda (including anti-Semitic propaganda). To speak of Jews as the primary victims of the Nazis would not have served that purpose.

The storm over the White House’s Holocaust statement is an opportunity for the United States and its new government to consider something to which Americans rarely give much thought: how the past informs the present and the implications of using history for political purposes. 

The policy of forgetting the specificity of Jewish suffering, born partly of ideological and political expediency, turned out to be wildly successful—so much so that by 2006, Yad Vashem, the world’s leading Holocaust museum and research institution, found it had barely 10-15% of the names of the 1.5 million Jews who had died in Ukraine (in contrast to 90% of European Jews whose names were known). What began with silence and propagandistic twists of language turned into a tragedy in which historical truth, collective and personal historical memory, and generational links had vanished.

More than 75 years after the tragedy and 25 years after becoming independent, these post-Soviet states are still dealing with the consequences of these policies. From Ukraine to Belarus to the Baltics, arguments over historical memory simmer and periodically erupt as people try to come to grips with a past that they are only now getting to know.

Decades of silence have turned certain topics into taboos—in some cases, it has become taboo to acknowledge the fact that there used to be a Jewish population in a given location, to say nothing of the role of local residents in their annihilation. Lack of political will and resources prevents many of these countries’ governments from developing coherent Holocaust narratives or instituting a requirement for Holocaust education in schools. After independence, many re-wrote their national histories and, in the process, excluded the fact that Jewish populations had lived side by side with them for centuries. Anti-Semitic myths persist unopposed.

That these myths remain alive and well is clear from the fact that they are periodically resurrected in the public sphere. This is what happened last week in Russia, for example, in the course of heated public discussions over the transfer of St. Petersburg’s St. Isaac Cathedral into the hands of the Orthodox Church. In the middle of the very week dedicated to Holocaust commemoration, Deputy Speaker of the Duma Petr Tolstoy (a descendant of the writer Leo Tolstoy) suggested that the people opposing the transfer were the same people who had come out of the Pale of Settlement to denigrate Russia’s churches and effect the 1917 revolution.

The statement was widely understood to refer to the well-established anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about a Jewish plot to destroy Russia through revolution. As Matt Kupfer and Eva Hartog note in The Moscow Times, even as Russia “tries to remember the Holocaust,” old narratives die hard. As a result of mixed messages, confusion and ignorance reign among the public.

In Ukraine, which had been home to 1.5 million Jews before the war, the Holocaust narrative is competing for national attention with the narratives of other national disasters: Holodomor (the Soviet policy of forced starvation) and Stalin’s repressions. In Lithuania, a recent book, Our People, by the writer Ruta Vanagaite sparked uproar and national soul-searching over the role of Lithuanians in the destruction of the country’s Jewish population.

The storm over the White House’s Holocaust statement is an opportunity for the United States and its new government to consider something to which Americans rarely give much thought: how the past informs the present and the implications of using history for political purposes. Adjusting historical truth to suit immediate political needs always exerts a price. This price can be very painful and have extremely long-term repercussions. If there was any country that amply demonstrated this, it was the Soviet Union.

About the Author

Izabella Tabarovsky

Izabella Tabarovsky

Senior Advisor, Regional Partnerships and Programming
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more