“Do you have half an hour? I’d like to take you to a very special place. It’s where I go to think and pray for the community when I have a problem that I don’t know how to solve.”
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Since the man asking me was a Chabad rabbi, I assumed that he was going to take me to a site where a Hasidic sage had once performed some fabled miracle. But since that morning Mendy Cohen had sent his driver to extricate me from a train stranded in no-man’s- land, made lunch and spent the rest of the day touring the besieged city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, employing a combination of personal charm and contacts on both warring sides to traverse roadblocks and checkpoints, I had to humor him.
He left his driver at the barricaded community center and we drove out to a quiet suburb, the kind of place that a few decades ago was a kolkhoz. Despite being overtaken by the urban sprawl, the houses still all had vegetable gardens and were separated by haphazard grassy expanses.
At the end of a winding road, next to a deserted farm and in the shadow of the smoking chimneys of a cement plant, we stopped by a small field and got out of the car. A black menorah stood on a stone plinth; a few short lines in Russian and in Hebrew on a plaque identified the site where on October 20, 1941 the Germans mowed down with machine guns 16,000 of the town’s Jews into a tank ditch.
We didn’t speak. Just stood there for a few minutes. Suddenly I realized that for the first time in years, I was saying Tehilim, Psalms. I’ve been to dozens of Holocaust memorials and museums on three continents, and visited concentration camps and killing fields in Germany, Poland, Russia and Ukraine, but with the exception of the camp in Austria where my grandfather was liberated by the U.S. Army in May 1945, I had never been as moved at any of them as I was in that quiet corner of a Ukrainian field, where no sign, real or recreated, of the murders 73 years earlier remained.
We drove back into Mariupol. The city center was controlled by pro-Russian separatists, while the outskirts were in the hands of the Ukrainian army. Each side accused the other, in speeches, leaflets, graffiti, posters and of course online, of being fascists and Nazis. The Russian propaganda machine described the new parties that had come to power in Kiev as the heirs of Ukrainian nationalists who had collaborated with Nazi Germany. On social media, Ukrainians posted pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin with a little mustache, or as they called him, “Putler.”
Rabbi Mendy is still in Mariupol, trying to help out his dwindling community, many of whose members have departed for calmer climes or emigrated to Israel. He drives out to the death pit and prays for inspiration and help when he is stuck for an answer.
This week many governments around the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. It is of course the date on which the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz. Few though are aware when looking at those black-and-white photographs of the huddled survivors in the freezing barracks that at the time, Joseph Stalin’s Kremlin withheld them from publication, indeed for long months forbid any mention of Auschwitz. The Kremlin felt that its story of Jewish and Polish suffering, as well as the suffering of other minorities that were imprisoned and executed there, such as the Roma, would somehow detract from the grander narrative of the Soviet sacrifice and triumph against Nazism. Even when the existence of Auschwitz was finally disclosed, Communist propaganda referred to those who were murdered there only as “the victims of fascism” and identified them by their birth countries, not by the fact that an overwhelming number of them were brought to Birkenau and gassed simply because they were Jews.
But that’s politics; when have you ever heard a politician admit that history somehow puts a question mark over his own policies?
Last week, at a session at the Kremlin with a delegation from the European Jewish Congress, Putin, whose policies have led to a spike in the past two years of Jewish immigration to Israel from both Russia and Ukraine, tried to score political points against the West by suggesting that the Jews in western Europe who are worried about anti-Semitism should come and live in Russia. To their shame, none of the Jewish “leaders” in the delegation dared to call him out.
Putin may have taken cynicism to new heights, but Western politicians are quite adept themselves at using the Holocaust for political purposes.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced in reverential tones in Parliament his government’s plans to build a national Holocaust memorial in the heart of London. Minutes later, he accused opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who last week visited the refugee camps across the Channel in France, of being prepared to allow “a bunch of migrants” into Britain.
The dismissive manner he used in reference to refugees fleeing war zones for the chance of a new life was rightly attacked as a political low blow on the part of Cameron, who is trying to be seen, at least, as opposing the European Union on migration issues. On the other hand, there was more than a pinch of hypocrisy in the Labour MPs attacking Cameron when their own leader, Corbyn, has repeatedly shared platforms in the past with Holocaust-deniers and described them as “friends.”
And of course there was Benjamin Netanyahu, whose official statement on the Prime Minister’s Office website for Holocaust Remembrance Day included only a few words on the Holocaust itself and instead dwelled on the hatred directed against Jews and the Jewish state that he claimed exists all around us — “We see this in Gaza; we see it in Raqqa; we see it in Tehran” and of course in Europe. Not a word of qualification or nuance: Hamas, the Islamic State, Iran and the Europeans who criticize Israel, all of them, are just like the Nazis back then.
What is it about the Holocaust and politics that creates such hypocrisy? No one is immune. Not even Barack Obama, who on Wednesday became the first U.S. president to give a speech at Israel’s embassy in Washington at a ceremony to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and honor four non-Jewish Americans who risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust.
His speech was praised as elegant and heartfelt, proof that whatever his political differences with Netanyahu, Obama is a genuine friend of the Jews and the Jewish state. It was all those things and it was also heavily politicized.
The way he spoke of how “in times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are too willing to give into a base desire to find someone else, someone different, to blame for our struggles” sounded like an oblique reference to the efforts of the Republican candidates to outdo each other with proposals targeting immigrants and Muslims. But that was understandable, as was his adding on to the list of minorities deserving of empathy “Israeli or Palestinian.”
The way he pointedly referred to both Netanyahu’s rivals, former and current Israeli presidents Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin without mentioning the prime minister, while obviously deliberate, was also excusable: There was no need for a name check. What was inexcusable, however, was the absence from Obama’s speech of a reference to a different world leader’s Holocaust Remembrance Day message.
Just a few hours earlier, the office of the Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei released online an anti-Israel (and anti-American) video of Ayatollah Khamenei questioning the West’s support for Israel. His answer was simple: “No one in European countries dares to speak about Holocaust while it is not clear whether at the core it is reality or not. Even it is reality, what is the reason it happened?”
He ended the video by calling upon Muslims throughout the world “to stand up against ignorance,” clearly referring to the Holocaust.
Obama, quite rightly, mentioned in his speech the rising anti-Semitism in Europe as well as Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust. But despite the fact that he must have been apprised in advance of Khamenei’s latest call to the Ummah to deny that the Holocaust ever happened, he, his advisors and speech writers didn’t think it relevant to insert a condemnation into his address.
You don’t have to be a Netanyahu supporter to feel that not calling out the leader of a nation with which the United States has just signed a key diplomatic agreement for publicly denying the Holocaust was a low point for Obama, no matter how moving his words of love for Jews and Israel. At the end of the day, he’s just another politician.
In my ideal world, politicians arrive at Holocaust memorial ceremonies and simply stand in silent contemplation, like Rabbi Mendy does at the killing pit in Mariupol. But they just can’t help themselves.