Reflections on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

In its impact, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a 10 for the Jews. The spread of the day itself is an important marker of the remarkable transformation in the status of the Holocaust and the growth of the recognition that it is a catastrophic event of importance for all of humanity.

Right after the war, the Holocaust was mostly sidetracked and its memory neglected. The survivors who came back home were not well received. For example, in Poland, there was a pogrom against them in the city of Kielce in 1946. Banks hid victims’ accounts rather than give them over to their families. Insurance companies failed to report or pay out policies. In Vatican circles, far from proclaiming the guilt and repentance of the Church – as occurred in 1998 – there was an organized network to help Nazi war criminals like Joseph Mengele escape to South America.

Decade by decade, the recognition grew that the factors that led to the Holocaust must be understood and policies developed to make sure that never again should such a cruel disaster be inflicted on anyone. Public interest grew steadily and Holocaust was recognized as the undisputed epitome of absolute evil. In Michael Berenbaum’s words, “In a world of relativism, it [the Holocaust] has taken its place as the Absolute [evil].”

For 50 years after World War II, the Russian government had suppressed memorials of the Holocaust. To the extent that it acknowledged the genocide, it focused on the destruction of Soviet citizens, i.e., denied the Jewishness of the murdered. The few memorials erected typically described the murdered as “victims of Fascism.” In the 1990s, Russia now moved to uphold the memory of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. It chose to mark the date of January 27 – the day when Russian troops liberated extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In May 1998, then-Swedish prime minister Göran Persson, former British prime minister Tony Blair and then-US president Bill Clinton set up a task force to promote international cooperation on Holocaust education and research. This group led the foundation of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust. Its declaration became the founding document of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Adoption of January 27 spread even more rapidly. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly voted to declare January 27 the world day for Holocaust commemoration. This resolution was the first and only resolution in the history of the UN presented by Israel that was adopted by UNGA – until this year when a second resolution condemning Holocaust denial was passed unanimously.

Another important contribution was that the IHRA statement – which is proclaimed on Holocaust Remembrance Day – defined antisemitism as including anti-Zionism. Some Palestinians and anti-Israel radicals have tried to convince the world that anti-Zionism and denial of Israel’s right to exist is not antisemitism. They even claimed that subsuming anti-Zionism under the rubric of antisemitism was an attempt to suppress criticism of Israel. Because it is perceived as issued by an international, nonpolitical group, the IHRA statement has been extremely helpful in blocking the use of anti-Zionism as a cover for, or as a “legitimate” form of antisemitism. The Remembrance Day is commemorated at the UN annually and anti-Zionist nations like Iran have to grin (or should I say: grimace) and bear it.

Nevertheless, why have I been deeply ambivalent about this January 27 commemoration since the beginning? The answer is that during the Holocaust, the Allies and the international community did very little to stop the extermination of the Jews. Individual nations – such as Denmark, Bulgaria, Albania (and Romania after 1943) acted to block the Nazi program and saved tens of thousands of lives.

For the most part, the Nazis’ Final Solution was unchecked by conquered European or German-allied governments. Local execution of the genocide was often aided by collaborators, as in Lithuania, Croatia and Poland. Nor did the anti-Nazi Allies make a serious priority effort to stop the destruction of the Jews in the Holocaust.

Under Stalin, the Russian government suppressed news of the ongoing extermination, which left more Jews unprepared to escape when the Nazis arrived. Thousands of Jews who fled Poland eastward were sent to camps in Siberia as if they were enemies. Many died there due to the horrible conditions. The Allies were begged to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz which daily brought thousands of Jews to their death but they refused. In short, the troops who liberated the camps should be honored, but many governments use them as a fig leaf to hide serious failures to help or save Jews earlier.

Therefore, I feel that the January 27 commemoration is giving too many countries a free moral pass. The date celebrates the actions of countries that actually didn’t do enough, rather than focusing on the victims and their fate and memory.

In 1979, former US president Jimmy Carter appointed a Presidential Commission on the Holocaust to recommend what the US should do to remember the Holocaust. The chairman of the PCH was Elie Wiesel and I served as its (executive) director. The commission recommended the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall.

With important input by its survivor members, the leadership of PCH recommended that the US hold days of commemoration for the Holocaust annually over the course of the week of Yom HaShoah. This is the day on which the survivors and the Israeli government, as the state which carries on the legacy and memory of the victims, have chosen to remember the Shoah. It takes place on 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar and on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We felt that the memorial date should honor the wishes of the survivors and be deeply Jewish. It should be focused on the victims rather than on the imputed good works of the Allied governments.

In 1979, hardly a government in the world, except for Israel, had a day of commemoration for the Holocaust. Amazingly, in 1978, then-senator John Danforth (R-Missouri), an Episcopal layman of great religious and moral stature, had on his own concluded that the Holocaust should be commemorated by all Americans. He chose the day when American troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp, April 29, 1945, as the date for the American annual commemoration. Due to Danforth’s stature, the date was adopted by Congress.

In 1980, during the PCH’s work, I went to visit senator Danforth and explained why the Commission was planning to recommend that the week of Yom HaShoah henceforth be the annual date for official United States government honoring the memory of the Holocaust. I sought to get his approval for this shift. Danforth thought deeply on the matter. He believed that all Americans should honor the memory and draw the lessons of the Shoah. He thought that focusing on the American liberators would strengthen the identification of all Americans with the significance of the Holocaust for all.

However, he pointed out that the American government under Franklin D. Roosevelt had failed to prioritize stopping the Holocaust. He also concluded that the truest respect and identification would be achieved by remembering on the same date as did the victims’ families and the Jewish people, that is, Yom HaShoah. He felt that the commemoration ceremonies should be held in the Capitol Rotunda as a message to the entire American people.

Danforth and the Congressional members accepted the PCH recommendation that the whole week be days of remembrance – in recognition that the Hebrew date of Yom HaShoah does not come out on the same day every year as on the Gregorian calendar. Also, Danforth felt that Saturday and Sunday should be part of the period so that all synagogues and churches could join in their way. The Congress accepted the commission’s recommendations to adopt these days of memory and commemoration ceremonies.

I have always felt in my heart that if all governments were as sensitive and respectful of Jewish particularity as the American government was in the 1980s; if the European and Allied governments were as self-reflective about their failures and if they truly cared about the suffering and legacy of the victims, then International Holocaust Remembrance Day would be in the week of Yom HaShoah.

Let me stress: January 27 is an important and constructive phenomenon. Like the Shoah itself, its transmission of memory and commemoration helps protect the Jewish people and the State of Israel. But full acceptance of the Jews – as well as full identification with their tragedy and the important lessons for life which Jewry drew from the event – is still not the norm in the international community. That is part of the unfinished task of Holocaust memory and education.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg