by Dr. Rafael Medoff and Benyamin Korn
(Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust – www.WymanInstitute.org. Benyamin Korn, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, is associate director of the Wyman Institute.)
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the site of the Auschwitz death camp last week was widely noted in the Western press for its strong, and welcome, condemnation of the rising tide of antisemitism in today’s Russia. Much less noted, however, was the astonishing fact that, in a speech commemorating the liberation of the camp where the Nazis exterminated some 1.5-million Jews, Putin made utterly no mention of the victims’ Jewishness.
Speaking at the international event marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz, Putin spoke movingly of the 600,000 Soviet soldiers who died while liberating Poland from the Nazis, and of the 27 million Russians who were killed in World War II. But absent from his speech was any mention of the Jews who died there.
Putin’s failure to acknowledge that the vast majority of the Auschwitz victims were Jews was consistent with the pernicious old Soviet policy of denying the Jewish identity of Holocaust victims.
This policy found expression even while the Holocaust still raged. In the summer of 1944, David Ben-Gurion’s deputy, Eliahu Epstein, met with a senior official of the Soviet Embassy in Cairo, and raised the issue “of bombing the centres of Jewish extermination in Poland.” Epstein reported back to Ben-Gurion that the Soviet official responded that “such an idea was out of the question politically, since the government of Russia would not adopt measures which were based on national grounds.”
After the war, the Soviet authorities made a concerted effort to obscure the Holocaust victims’ Jewishness. Government publications, from official histories of the period to school textbooks, described Nazi atrocities against peoples of various nationalities–but did not acknowledge they were Jews.
Perhaps the most infamous example of this policy was the inscription on the memorial that the Soviet government built to the Jews who were slaughtered by the Nazis at Babi Yar, in German-occupied Ukraine: “Here in 1941-1943, the German fascist invaders executed more than 100,000 citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war.”
This effort to downplay the victims’ Jewish identity, tragically, was not confined to the Soviets. During the war, the Roosevelt administration was reluctant to call attention to the fact that the Jews were being singled out for persecution, lest that increase pressure on the U.S. to grant them refuge. In this same spirit, the chiefs of the U.S. Office of War Information instructed their staff that coverage of the Nazi mass-murders would be “confused and misleading if it appears to be simply affecting the Jewish people.”
A meeting of the American, British, and Soviet foreign ministers in Moscow in October 1943 issued a statement threatening postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against conquered populations. It mentioned “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages …Cretan peasants … the people of Poland”–but not Jews.
Even FDR’s 1944 message commemorating the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt did not mention the Jews.
Arthur Szyk, the famous artist and Jewish rescue activist, remarked bitterly that Europe’s Jews were being “treat[ed] as a pornographical subject–you cannot discuss it in polite society.”
Since the end of the war, the uniquely Jewish dimension of the Nazi Holocaust has been widely acknowledged in Western society. And since becoming president of Russia, Putin has made considerable effort to put distance between himself and the old Soviet regime, including with regard to Jewish matters. But his apparent retention of the old Soviet policy of denying the Jewishness of the Holocaust’s victims, particularly in a speech at Auschwitz, is a troubling throwback to a discredited Soviet practice.