On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Russian government is once again trying to blur the Jewish identity of Holocaust victims, resurrecting a discredited and shameful practice of the old Soviet regime.
The latest flashpoint is an exhibition that the Russian authorities prepared for inclusion in the Polish government’s Auschwitz State Museum, which is situated at the site of the former Nazi death camp. The Russian exhibition memorializes those citizens of the Soviet Union who died during World War II.
According to the exhibition, nearly 3 million of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust were Russian. But Auschwitz Museum officials have objected, noting that about 1 million of those 3 million "Russians" were actually citizens of Poland, Romania, and various Baltic nations. Soviet citizenship was imposed upon them because they happened to live in territory that the USSR occupied as a result of Stalin’s infamous deal with Hitler in 1939.
No wonder the museum authorities have refused to permit the opening of the Russian exhibition. It’s a blatant attempt by Moscow to rewrite and distort the Holocaust for a political purpose — to emphasize Russia’s sacrifices in the war against Hitler.
Sadly, this is not the first time the Russian government has blurred over the Jewish identity of Holocaust victims.
Two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at Auschwitz to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of the camp. He spoke movingly of the 600,000 Soviet soldiers who died while liberating Poland from the Nazis, and of the ‘7 million Russians who were killed in World War II. But absent from his speech was any mention of the Jews who were murdered there.
The Putin government’s attitude is tragically 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 Jewishness of Holocaust victims. 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 was not confined to the Soviets. During the war, the Roosevelt administration, too, 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.
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." Even President Roosevelt’s 1944 message commemorating the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt — a rebellion by Jewish fighters — did not mention the Jews.
Likewise, 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.
Arthur Szyk, the famous artist and Holocaust rescue activist, remarked bitterly that Europe’s Jews were being "treat[ed] as a pornographical subject — you cannot discuss it in polite society."
More than six decades have passed, and much has changed in public attitudes regarding the Holocaust. The uniquely Jewish dimension of the Nazi genocide has been widely acknowledged in Western society. The Putin government’s attitude, by contrast, threatens to turn the clock back to the dark days when the Jewishness of Holocaust victims was deliberately obscured for political and ideological purposes.
Raphael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.