Eastern Europe ignores the Holocaust

In Ukraine, the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera is now revered as a hero and that in several other Eastern European countries, too, attempts are being made to erase their own involvement in Nazi crimes against the Jews from the historical picture. The new anti-Semitism in Hungary has also been the case recently. Let us show how difficult it is for Eastern European states to deal with collaboration.

In the Lithuanian capital, the institution formerly known as the Museum of Genocide Victims only marginally mentions the murder of almost all Jews in the country by Nazis and local citizens. It is better to concentrate on years of Soviet rule. In Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, others, calling themselves museums, organize festivals and summer camps on the site of a former concentration camp. But the victim is not remembered. In the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, a Holocaust museum called Tkuma is showing a controversial exhibition about Jews who supported Soviet politics. This complicity led to a mass famine (Holodomor). The whole thing happened a decade before the “final solution” of the Nazis began. And in the capitals of Romania and Ukraine, where the Nazis and their collaborators organized the murder of more than 1.5 million Jews, there are no national Holocaust museums at all. Internal struggles and debates about history and complicity have prevented them from opening up. These are just a few examples of a general trend in Eastern Europe, where institutions with the stated aim of informing the public about the Holocaust end up trivialising it or ignoring it altogether. Commemorative activists from the region blame various aspects such as nationalist revisionism, anti-Semitism, lack of money, personal animosity and incompetence on the situation.

All these elements were on display at the National Museum of Jewish History and the Holocaust in Romania. But the museum is no longer open. A second example is the “House of Destinies” in Budapest. It exists, but will remain closed five years after its planned opening.

Threats from a deputy mayor

In Bucharest, the discrepancy over what began in 2016 as a generous plan by the city administration is deepening: to finally build a Holocaust museum. Aurelian Badulescu, the city’s deputy mayor, but threatened to unveil the bust of Ion Antonescu, the wartime leader who collaborated with Hitler, in Bucharest. His threat was seen as a measure to divide local Jews.

The proposal of the city administration, which had planned a magnificent building for the project, was not approved. Opponents of the plan wanted to move the museum to the outskirts of the city. After various protests, Badulescu announced his plan to honor Antonescu. In a letter to Maximilian Marco Katz, a Romanian Jew who was born in Bucharest and who heads the MCA, Badulescu also wrote that Katz should go back to where he came from. The future of the Bucharest Museum is currently in limbo.

Discrepancies in Hungary

In Budapest, the “House of Destinies” has been empty for about five years now from where Hungarian Jews have been transported to death camps. The reason is a dispute between the Jewish Community Association Mazsihisz and the government. Among other things, it concerns the appointment of the historian Maria Schmidt, who was appointed museum director by the government. She is accused of trivialising the Holocaust by equating it with Soviet dominance.

In order to break the deadlock, the government this year commissioned a group affiliated with Chabad (EMIH) to run the museum. But the discussion among Jewish groups continues to slow the project, in a country that critics say a right-wing government seeks to whitewash the collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.

The Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest’s Péva Street was opened in 2004 with state funding. But this institution, too, is suffering from internal trench warfare, budget cuts, and a decline in visitors. Developments that have cast doubt on the longevity of the project. Rivalries also play a role in the seemingly endless efforts to build a Holocaust museum in the Ukrainian city of Kiev. The dispute began in 2001 and continues.

Different way of dealing with history

Collaborations between the Eastern European local population and the National Socialists of Germany also took place on a massive scale in Western Europe. But that part of the continent was liberated after World War II, beginning a long, ongoing process of reckoning in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and other Western states. Eastern Europe, on the other hand, has been taken over by a brutal and anti-Semitic regime, Felicia Waldman, an expert on Jewish studies and Holocaust education at the University of Bucharest, said in an interview. That is why it was only in the last 20 years that a new generation of local scientists emerged in Eastern Europe who had become Holocaust experts. Moreover, the legacy of communism makes it difficult for some people to admit what happened, because they see their country as a victim and not in that of a perpetrator. Denying Holocaust complicity is then logically part of national pride. One way to neutralize the “bitter pill” of complicity could therefore be to highlight the role of Holocaust saviors in museums.

In recent years, museums have opened their doors to rescuers in those states where collaboration has been a major part of history. This includes the Jewish Lipke Memorial in Riga, Latvia, which opened in 2012, where thousands of Jews have been murdered by locals.

Interestingly, at the site of the Ponar murders near Vilnius in Lithuania, the museum shows an exhibition about the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who worked in Kaunas and mainly saved Polish Jews.

At the beginning of the year, the state Jewish Museum “Gaon of Vilna” in Vilnius launched a mobile exhibition on the “Righteous Among the Nations” of the country – non-Jews who have been recognized by Israel for risking their lives to save Jews.

In 2016, a museum about rescuers began operating in Poland against the backdrop of a polarizing international debate about Polish complicity during the Holocaust. Another museum of this kind is planned for Auschwitz. Polish officials claim that there have been around 70,000 “Righteous Among the Nations” in Poland, although the Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has recognized fewer than 7,000.

It is in itself honorable for institutions such as Yad Vashem to recognize rescuers today, said Efraim Zuroff, Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “But not if they are associated with the recognition of local complicity in Nazi crimes.” This would completely miss the point in the post-communist states of the present.