Memories Russia, Auschwitz and Antisemitism on International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Commentary by Steven A. Smith
The Russians drove my father’s family from Europe, not the Nazis.
My paternal grandfather, living in the neverland between Ukraine and Russia, fled to America in the 1920s. Pogroms that decimated Jewish villages in Eastern Europe had been sending Jews west for decades, fueling bursts of Jewish immigration to the U.S.
My grandfather arrived with his son, my father’s half-brother, in 1924.
Antisemitism was state policy in czarist Russia. Pogroms, often carried out by ethnic Cossacks acting on behalf of the state, were violent antisemitic riots. They were driven in part by anti-Jewish fervor within the Russian empire, too often supported by the Russian Orthodox Church.
But they also were bald-faced land grabs, with local and regional officials seizing Jewish-owned land and property for their own benefit.
The situation did not change much with the Russian revolution. Pogroms continued in the years immediately following the revolution, and those were the savage riots that sent my grandfather to the U.S.
Virulent antisemitism has been fundamental to the Russian psyche in the decades since. And it is important to remember that when considering the events surrounding International Holocaust Remembrance Day last week.
Remembrance Day is Jan. 27, the date in 1945 on which Russian Army troops liberated the Auschwitz extermination camp complex in occupied Poland.
It was not the first camp liberated as World War II came to an end in Europe. And it was not the last. But Auschwitz was the largest extermination camp. The torture and murder committed there was on a scale the world had never seen before and has not seen since.
The Red Army’s 322nd Rifle Division had not intended to liberate Auschwitz as it raced west across Poland chasing a defeated but desperate German army. The camp complex was simply in its way. On Jan. 27, 1945, at 3 p.m., advance units came upon the camp.
Camp guards had fled. Remaining were 7,000 prisoners, mostly old men and children too sick to join the 60,000 other inmates forced to march from Auschwitz to camps in Germany, a death march that killed thousands.
The Russian soldiers were not prepared for what they found in the camp. The living prisoners were skeletal ghosts, starving, wounded, dying. Soldiers found the gas chambers and the ovens. They found stacks of rotted corpses and mass graves. And they found piles of eyeglasses, shoes and other items taken from prisoners before they were murdered.
Russian officers understood immediately that Jews were the camp’s primary victims. Because the Germans kept meticulous records, it was later learned that 1.3 million people had been sent to the camp and 1.1 million had been murdered, mostly by Zyklon B gas. Of the 1.1 million dead, 960,000 were Jews, the rest a mix of Poles, Roma, Soviet POWs and others.
The Russians who liberated the camp knew this and reported to their seniors in Moscow that the camp had functioned as a killing factory for Jews. But all references to Jewish deaths were removed from official reports out of Moscow.
In Stalinist Russia, Jews were not allowed to be victims. Even now Russia’s history of what is called the Great Patriotic War excludes meaningful references to Jewish slaughter.
In all honesty, we know now that the Allies knew precisely what was happening in Auschwitz and other death camps but decided for strategic reasons to not bomb the camps or the railroads serving them and transporting victims to their death. In hindsight, that decision seems its own evil.
Auschwitz was the only death camp to survive the war mostly intact. And a few years after the war’s end, it was turned into a monument and museum, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day was subsequently tied to the camp’s Jan. 27 liberation.
Traditionally, the world’s great nations send representatives to the remembrance ceremonies. American presidents and vice presidents have attended. This year the second gentleman, a Jew, led the American delegation. Leaders of all the allied nations and Israel routinely attend. And so have Soviet, now Russian leaders. Vladimir Putin was there in 2005 to mark the liberation’s 60th anniversary.
But no Russians were in attendance this year. They were not invited.
To the Western powers – and to Holocaust survivors everywhere – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggers the worst memories. The carnage unleashed on the Ukrainian people, the flood of refugees, the indiscriminate civilian bombing and destruction of cities and the untold number of atrocities are far too reminiscent of German tactics in the great war.
And so those in charge of the remembrance commemoration said no to Russian participation even though it was the Russians who liberated the camp.
Putin was furious, arguing the West was trying to scrub his country from history.
But as The Guardian notes in this article, Putin’s entire Ukrainian campaign is based on an antisemitic Christian nationalism that posits the true victims of the Holocaust were not Jews but rather Russian Christians. It is the same Christian nationalism that is fueling fascist movements around the world, including in the U.S.
Putin’s entire Ukrainian campaign is based on an antisemitic Christian nationalism that posits the true victims of the Holocaust were not Jews but rather Russian Christians. It is the same Christian nationalism that is fueling fascist movements around the world, including in the U.S.Steven A. Smith
In Putin’s twisted world view, the contemporary fascists are not neo-Nazis, but rather Jews, personified in Ukraine by its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian Jews enjoyed a period of unprecedented freedom with anti-Jewish laws and practices abandoned. But there has been a resurgence of antisemitism in recent years, led by Putin and, in too many cases, by the Russian Orthodox Church. And as the nation’s economy reels from international sanctions, antisemitic incidents are increasing.
Of course, antisemitism is on the march again worldwide. It is on the march in the U.S. In part, that is why this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day was so important and why it is important to understand why the Russians were not invited.
When talking of the Holocaust, we say “never again.” With Russia attempting to obliterate Ukraine, we need to also say “not now.”
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Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020. His columns reflect his progressive political views. Smith was raised in a Jewish home and is culturally Jewish. However, he considers himself an atheist, which is reflected in his writing. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon. Smith currently serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board of Trustees.
Surely I can’t be the first person to respond to this outstanding piece of opinion journalism. I’m not worthy.
Thanks for being the first to give Steve kudos here Don!