Babi Yar. Ponary. Fort IX. Poinitowa. Piaski. Chernovtsy. Mogilev. Rumbula.
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There are few events in history recalled as often and in such detail as the Holocaust, in great part due to the vigilance of Jewish communities in ensuring that its tragic lessons not be forgotten and the memories of its victims be honored. And yet the names of the mass killing grounds above – once ordinary cities, forests, or ravines - are often overshadowed by the horrors of the gas chambers and the infamous death camps which housed them.
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the systematic operation to wipe out the Jews of Eastern Europe began. Over the next 15 months, SS Einsatzgruppen units methodically moved across the region, rounding up local Jews – often with the help of local police and under the guise of relocation – then brutally massacring them before moving on to the next city, town, or village. More than a million Jews were killed in this "Holocaust of Bullets," in the months leading up to and following the Wannsee Conference, at which the Nazis officially decided on what they termed the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question."
Every day is a day of mourning for the victims of these massacres and others, a day of tragedy for the survivors and their descendants. It would be nearly impossible, on a communal or international level, to hold a commemorative event for every gassing, every stabbing, every shooting, every bombing, and every assault that occurred during the Holocaust.
But we also cannot allow ourselves to forget. Consider the tragic massacres that occurred just this week in Aleppo, so horrifically fresh in our consciousness today. In the years and decades to come, they too may be forgotten, overshadowed by other unthinkable tragedies; they too may become days of mourning remembered just by the victims and their relatives.
We owe it to the victims of the Holocaust, and of all massacres and genocides, to remember them and how they died.
In the countries in which the Einsatzgruppen massacres of 1941-1942 were carried out, where local complicity was frighteningly common, it is particularly imperative for the governments of today to publicly remember and accept responsibility.
Across Eastern Europe we are beginning to see meaningful initiatives of the kind – in Kyiv just over two months ago, the Ukrainian president hosted the World Jewish Congress and thousands of other delegates for the largest commemoration of the 1941 Einsatzgruppen massacre at Babi Yar to date.
Last week, we marked 75 years since two non-consecutive “Aktionen” ("actions"), as the Nazis called these operations, were carried out in the Rumbula forest near Riga, the capital of Latvia. In these "actions," 25,000 Jews were shoved into pits dug by Soviet prisoners of war and shot in the head.
The "actions" began on November 29, 1941, when the first round of 1,000 Jews was transported from Berlin to Riga, as part of the move to make Germany “judenrein” ("clean of Jews"). Himmler’s order, according to historians, was to collect the Jews of Riga from the ghetto to be shot dead, and then house the deported German Jews in their place. But when the transport arrived early to Riga, no dwellings were yet available. The German Jews were marched into the forest and murdered there, becoming the first victims of the Rumbula massacre.
In the days leading up to the massacre, the local Jews had been divided according to age and gender, with able-bodied men separated, and told to pack their belongings up to 20 kilograms. In the frenetic night before dawn on November 30, the terror began. Survivors recall drunk German and Latvian officers bursting through their doors, hunting down residents, and throwing children out of windows, driving columns of people through holes cut in fences, marching them by the hundreds through midday to the forest site, whipping them with their rifle butts to force them to walk, trot, run faster. Dozens perished on the march itself. In her memoir “I survived Rumbuli,” Frida Michelson describes the horrific aftermath: “Corpses were scattered all over, rivulets of blood still oozing from the lifeless bodies. They were mostly old people, pregnant women, children, handicapped - all those who could not keep up with the inhuman tempo of the march.”
Just one week later, in the night between December 7 and 8, the second "action" began, and this time, the terrified residents knew their tormentors’ intentions. Michelson, who was driven along with the masses on this fateful night, writes: “As we came near the forest, we heard shooting again. This was the horrible portent of our future Nobody had a doubt as to what awaited us. We were all numb with terror and followed orders mechanically. We were incapable of thinking and were submitting to everything like a docile herd of cattle.”
Amid the commotion and barking orders of the German and Latvian soldiers, Michelson threw herself face down in a pit, feigning death; of the 12,000 people driven out of the Riga ghetto that day, only she and two others survived. Another ‘action’ the next morning claimed the lives of 500 more.
This year, the Latvian government played a large role in commemorating the anniversary of these massacres. President Raimonds Vjonis and parliament Speaker Inara Murniece attended the annual memorial, and, in a first, an unofficial candle-lighting vigil initiated by non-Jewish Latvians was organized on Facebook, with some 500-600 people in attendance.
As in Ukraine, these steps of recognition and commemoration are encouraging; so too is the commitment of most Eastern European countries to combat anti-Semitism and protect the small Jewish communities that remain. Latvia, for example, passed a resolution immediately upon regaining independence in 1991 recalling the Holocaust and denouncing anti-Semitism, and the country’s first post-Soviet president Guntis Ulmanis spoke at Yad Vashem in Israel, apologizing for Latvian participation in the Holocaust.
But there is still more work to be done across the region. Governments participating in commemorations of massacres perpetrated on their soil must do more than just remember the Holocaust; they must each acknowledge their countries’ complicity, and they must prioritize Holocaust education, of well-known and forgotten events alike. They must testify to the atrocities that can emerge from hatred, and do everything in their power to ensure that such crimes are never again perpetrated under their watch, or that of their successors.
The sheer scope of the Holocaust and the precision with which it was implemented was unprecedented, and its relevance in addressing the conflicts of today is indisputable. The words “Never Again,” reiterated so often over the last seven decades, have become empty as we witness massacre after massacre, even genocides, in so many parts of the world.
If we cannot remember the forgotten massacres of the Holocaust, we will not remember the forgotten massacres ongoing to this day. And if we don’t remember each and every one of those, how can we ever prevent another Holocaust from occurring?
Robert R. Singer is the CEO and Executive Vice President of the World Jewish Congress