Ruth Ellen Gruber has written an overview article for JTA about Holocaust accountability in Europe in the 20 years since the fall of Communism. Click here read column: "In Eastern Europe, advances toward accountability but more to do," by Ruth Ellen Gruber (October 28, 2009).
Ruth interviewed me for the article. Its a topic that we discuss frequently. In looking over my extended comments (which Ruth herself could have made since due to our shared experiences our views are very close) I thought them worth sharing. As always, I appreciate, readers' reactions and comment.
Interview with Samuel Gruber about Holocaust Memory After Communism (Oct 20, 2009):
REG: Which [former Communist] states have made most progress coming to terms with this?
Sam Gruber: When talking about Holocaust recognition and commemoration, all progress is relative. Some countries are much further along the path to historical accountability and sincere commemoration than others, but many have had further to come. Some countries are deeply divided with more liberal and internationally leaning political movements ready to discuss crimes of the past, while more right wing and nationalist parties feel that to do so is a form of self-hatred and near treasonous behavior.
In all former Communist countries it has been necessary to overturn a half century of misinformation, and in many cases outright denial of many of the most basic facts of the Holocaust. Those countries which suffered the most under the Nazis - especially Poland and the Czech Republic - were most ready to accept the worst about them, and to acknowledge of horrors of the Holocaust. Those countries where wartime governments collaborated with Germany - such as Latvia and Romania have had a harder time, for to acknowledge Nazi crimes was in effect to acknowledge their own complicity. In the Baltic it has been even more complex, since throughout the decades of Soviet occupation the Nazis continued to be seen as liberators against the Russians by nationalists in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Holocaust history was mostly irrelevant in the years of anti-Communist nationalists.
Thus, to say it is difficult to say who has made the most progress. A small movement to recognize the historic truth of the Holocaust and to commemorate victims in a place like Latvia, and to acknowledge local collaboration, is to me as much progress, as has been done on the monument at Rumbula, is to my as much progress a large monument being erected in Poland, where all Poles see themselves as victims of the Nazis, and most are ready to accept the Jews as victims, too...albeit not always as a separate case.
REG: What are the problem areas and why?
Sam Gruber: There are problems on three levels.
First, there is the problem of obtaining and confirming information about the Holocaust in particularly places. The more the local resistance to accepting the Holocaust as fact; the more important it is to be precise in the information that is presented.
Second, there is the problem of disseminating information. For the most part the hardest populations to reach - and these are also sometimes the very ones that harbor traditional stereotypical notions of Jews (and others) - are those that only communicate in their local language. These populations tend to be the most traditional, the most parochial, the least educated, the least traveled and probably the most religious, where religion has retaken a hold. It has been slow going for international Holocaust education groups to prepare and disseminate materials in local languages, or to do it enough to combat the abundance of locally produced anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial material in these same countries. Local leadership is very important in acknowledging and commemorating the Holocaust. Mayors, teachers, priest, national leaders really can set the tone and established a better climate for education and dialogue.
REG: What are some of best practice examples?
Sam Gruber: I think the monument at Buchenwald in Germany, which tells the story of the Little Camp fully, and in sharp evocative language, and in many languages, is very successful. Because the monument was designed by a survivor of the camp it has special power. Its simplicity is a virtue. The monuments at the killing fields of Rumbula and Bikierniki Forest outside of Riga are also very moving, and very well done. Meanwhile, however, there are inadequate markers at sites within the city itself. I still find the Umschlagplatz monument in Warsaw very moving, though it requires some previous knowledge of the history of the site. The cemetery monument at Kazimierz Dolny, built in the 1980s, and the extensive monument at the Death Camp of Treblinka; also continue to serve well, though it may be time in both cases to add more explanatory and educational material. Not immediately as part of the artistic monuments, but nearby.
Usually monuments that are destinations can be more symbolic, since it is usually assumed the visitor knows something or otherwise would not have come. Markers that appear in unexpected places, on buildings and streets, need to provide more information. Monuments such as that in Bratislava are, as I have previously written, unsuccessful because they mark a place but do not tell a story. They can serve as backdrops for scheduled commemorative events, but otherwise they serve little purpose. This is always the danger of the most official monuments – government sponsors always prefer to be vague – and not to alienate any constituency.
REG: Have some states taken the right steps only to reverse them?
Sam Gruber: It has to be understood that education is a slow process, and that changing inherited and accepted concepts and beliefs is a difficult task in any context. In this light, I think we can look at amazing progress over the past two decades. At the very time that most former Communist countries were grappling with them most challenging problems of nation building, identify, democratization and economic transformation, they have also changed many attitudes about the Jewish past in general, and the events of the Holocaust. In many of these places, even the concept of a Holocaust separate from the devastation of the Great Patriotic War [World War II] had previous been unknown. The greatest willingness to consider, and even accept a basic history of the Holocaust has been greatest in those countries most closely associated with the West. It has been part of the process of granting democratic rights and religious freedom. It has also been the result of Eastern governments yielding to pressures from American a Europe if they wanted NATO and EU status. Thus Poland has been among the most receptive to Holocaust education, while UkraineBelarus have been much slower.
REG: Some of your own personal experiences negotiating and monitoring Holocaust commemoration projects?
Sam Gruber: After the problem of funding, the hardest part of getting monuments and memorials erected not been getting some kind of general consent, it has been working the specifics of design and especially of language. Most older memorials have been very general in their language – so much so that it is often hard to even figure out what events are being commemorated, and rarely can one learn about who did what to whom, and when. This began to change in the 1990s.
In my experience with the US Commission [for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad], it has always been part of the mission that monuments should be not only be symbolic, but that they must help tell a story. Hey need to be witness – clear voices in languages that local people can understand – and they must be as forthright and truthful as possible. Sometimes one could do this in Hebrew, Yiddish or English…local officials didn’t mind. But increasing there has been a push to get truth told in local languages, and that has meant sharp clashes with local Holocaust deniers, or with those who want to protect local reputations. These conflicts have slowed many monument projects…but ultimately they are very good…because it makes the education and commemoration process an active and forceful one, not just a passive act.
In Latvia, at Rumbula, it took the personal intercession of the President of Latvia to make sure language was included on the inscription that mentioned Latvian collaborators. Another problem is using numbers – as in 10,000 Jews were killed. Frequently initial drafts of monument texts are changed to avoid that level of specificity. It is feared that if a number is contested and even disproved, even just by a bit, that such misrepresentation could be used to discredit the entire project, and by extension to paint an entire massacre, or even the entire Holocaust, as false.
The installation of local monuments is often the most touching, since many non-Jews are eager to participate. The older people remember – and one can never by sure what exactly it is that they remember. The younger people are often eager to learn. Usually, the slower the project, and the more it is the result of a continuing dialogue and planning process that is inclusive of local people, the more successful the result, because local people have a proprietary stake in the project. Monuments that are erected without local involvement, but only through the time and money of “outsiders” – even if they are descendants of those murdered in the town – can be more controversial.
REG: How important is this all, 65 years after the fact?
Sam Gruber: Understanding the history of the Holocaust, including acts of complicity and acts of resistance; remains extremely important in this part of the world. Of course, it is important to Jews who want recognition of Jewish suffering, and acknowledgment of the extent of the destruction of an entire civilization. But it is equally important for the individuals and governments of those countries themselves since only by wrestling with their often contentious and convoluted histories can they reduce the likelihood of a future similar to the past. These are still fledgling democracies. Some have a vague memory of pre-Communist democratic institutions and objective historical research. Most, however, have been shaped by rigid ideology for most of a century. Thus it is one thing for Czechs - so close to Austria and Germany, to be attuned to political and historical revisionism of reconsiderations of the recent decades, but it is very different in Ukraine, which was never really independent, and has been under Tsarist and Communist rule since the 19th century. And those areas of - like Lviv - which were more international and multi-cultural before the Holocaust, are today incredibly homogeneous, with populations mostly drawn from the Ukrainian countryside, resettled in Lviv after World War II. For the most part they are not aware of any objective history, including their own. In Ukraine, Holocaust education must be part of a larger package of education about European history overall.
People sometimes suggest that I write a book about Holocaust memory and monuments - mixing the political and the practical; aesthetics and altruism. It has been a nearly a generation since James Young published his important book Texture of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993). That book was a primer for me, but James and I come to the subject from very different perspectives - in this case he as a critic and academic, while I am an activist and work with closely with Jewish communities. At the moment though I may have the focus to write such a book, I don't have the (almost greater) energy needed to seek out a publisher. But if any of my readers want to pursue this...by all means, let me know.