Opinion

Not in the Name of Yad Vashem's Historians

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on January 23.
Ronen Zvulun,AP

The clarification published by my friend and colleague Prof. Dan Michman – head of the Yad Vashem International Institute of Holocaust Research – in which he apologized for the videos screened during the ceremony held on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, precipitated a furor, and rightly so. It was, to be sure, an unusual and courageous statement: Few institutions publicly admit to making professional mistakes. On the other hand, too much time had elapsed since the event itself, and Michman’s brief declaration raised more questions than it answered.

For the sake of full disclosure, I and my colleagues at the institute played no part in the ceremony whatsoever. In retrospect, we understood that Yad Vashem had devoted immense resources to organizing what was essentially a diplomatic meeting, while totally neglecting the content put on display there. I have no doubt that Yad Vashem will ultimately find a way to clarify the genesis of this event, and more importantly, that it will also draw the appropriate conclusions. However, I, together with other scholars both at Yad Vashem and other institutions, believe that our duty as historians is to present a clear professional voice. As such, this apology and clarification is insufficient. The footage screened at the ceremony – regardless of the reasons it was chosen – called into question our own expertise. More seriously, that screening threatens the very integrity of Yad Vashem, which has been developed, laboriously, over the course of many years, and through the dedication and toil of many outstanding scholars.

Let’s call a spade a spade: The ceremony will indeed be remembered as an impressive and exceptional international diplomatic gathering, a fact stated by Holocaust scholar Prof. Yehuda Bauer in these pages (in Hebrew), but it will also be remembered as one of the most disappointing moments in the fierce battle being waged over the integrity of history. Strangely, the result was that I and other scholars affiliated with Yad Vashem, found ourselves, appearing to legitimize, even if inadvertently, the Russian narrative of World War II. At least that is the way it appeared. Even if this was not our intention, which it most certainly was not, this move seriously damaged our professional reputation, and it now requires genuine soul-searching, beginning with some unequivocal comments, however painful.

We must state publicly that these videos, broadcast around the world, were heavily biased. The worst was the clip purporting to present in a nutshell the history of the Holocaust, accompanied by a perplexing, if not to say distorted narrative. That footage contained no reference to the partition of Poland between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in 1939, or to the German conquest of Western Europe in 1940. The maps displayed in the video contained multiple errors (such as erroneous demarcation of the borders between Poland and its neighbors, and the fallacious labelling of concentration camps as death camps). These historical inaccuracies, enumerated by Prof. Michman, were not random.

For a brief moment, one in which the eyes of the world were focused on Yad Vashem, and with the aid of a misleading visual prop – the biased Russian version of history managed to overcome not only the Polish narrative (itself a distorted one), but also years of historical research, the ultimate intention of which was to present an accurate, well-reasoned and impeccably documented chronicle of what had happened in those years.

It was a sad moment for historians in Israel and across the world, including, and perhaps especially, for our colleagues in Poland. The individuals to whom I refer are first-class researchers and intellectuals who have for many years now courageously confronted an ongoing smear campaign, a reaction to their attempts to seriously discuss, among other issues, the role of their compatriots in the Holocaust. These scholars are viciously maligned in the nationalistic press and sometimes at international conferences; some of them are even facing legal actions because of their dedication to the truth. These fearless people, devoted and honest, deserve our support. But all we can do to assist them is to present our own precise scholarship on the same chilling topic that we all seek to elucidate for the benefit of this and successive generations.

For example: Not all Poles were Righteous Among the Nations, but Poles were most certainly not to blame for the construction of camps in German-occupied Poland. Many Poles undoubtedly viewed with favor the disappearance of the Jews, and some also improved their own social status as a result, but saying Poles imbibed anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk is wrong and even disgraceful.

With regard to Russia: There is no disputing the key role of Soviet forces in the liberation of Europe from German occupation, but one cannot ignore its unwanted presence in Eastern Europe in subsequent decades. While other Western states signed pacts with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, one cannot understate the significance of the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement between Stalin and Hitler in 1939, which brought about the division and subjugation of Poland. Regrettably, we were not nearly as clear as we should have been regarding these complex events in history.

In recent years, we have been witnessing an increased involvement of politicians in shaping the historical narrative of the Holocaust. This demands that we historians take a clear public professional stand. This is not a historian’s usual preoccupation, but times have compelled us to adopt such a course of action, and the ceremony on Holocaust Remembrance Day demands an explicit statement: The role of Yad Vashem as a custodian of Holocaust commemoration puts us all to complex tests. It is therefore incumbent upon us to leave no stone unturned in our quest for accuracy. We must continue to be a central force for the dissemination of thoroughly documented historical facts, subjecting our own work to the most rigorous scrutiny. This also is true regarding what is stated in our names by the institution with which we are proudly affiliated and the place where we conduct our research. Only thus can we and Yad Vashem maintain our powerful voice, presenting a nuanced and balanced scholarly approach to Holocaust research, while continuing to serve as an important anchor for scholars and others striving for the truth, no matter how horrible.

President Reuven Rivlin called for leaving the “history of the Holocaust to the historians,” and even though we realize it will never remain solely in our hands, we must constantly struggle to maintain our leading role compiling and transmitting the chronicle of those terrible times.

Prof. Havi Dreifuss heads Tel Aviv University’s Institute for the History of Polish Jewry and Israel-Poland Relations, as well as Yad Vashem’s Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland.