Bringing the Dark Past to Light

Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe. Edited and with an introduction by John-Paul Himka and Joanna Beata Michlic. U of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London, 2013. 778 pp.

At 778 pages, this is clearly a research volume and not the kind of book non-historians tend to read cover to cover. This said, it is definitely worth delving into, particularly for insight into the current state of Eastern European countries. For me, reading the chapter entitled “The Sheep of Lidice: The Holocaust and the Construction of Czech National History” was de rigeur and well worth the effort. It helped me to understand why I experienced museum exhibitions in Terezin as self-pitying and the Czechs I had occasion to meet as hostile. Numerous current and former citizens of Czechoslovakia have reminded me that my attitude as reflected in my book, but I have not had occasion to travel there since its publication. Furthermore, despite a shortage of books on the topic, no publisher from the land of my birth has reached out as did the Germans. This book, more than any other, has helped me to see the degree to which individual attitudes are shaped by governments and political forces.

I admittedly was unaware of the degree of paranoia experienced by the Czechs in the multiculturally hobbled together country created by the League of Nations in 1918. Himka and Michlic write as follows:

The persecution of Jews therefore was integrated into Czech master narratives only as the first step toward the genocide of Czechs. The subordination of the persecution of Jews to the mainstream narrative is clearly expressed in the treatment of victims’ statistics. The number of murdered Czechoslovak Jews was mostly diffuse in the overall statistics of approximately 360,000 Czechoslovak victims of World War II, even though some three-fourths of them were Jews. p.173.

This book has also helped me to understand the degree of discomfort I have felt upon reading many of the recent media reports on Putin’s seizure of the Crimea and his meddling in the Ukraine. Himka and Michlic put many things into perspective for me. Primarily, I must acknowledge that I had been profoundly ignorant of the history of the area, including the fact that “in the pre-war and war era, the Crimea was not part of the Ukraine…but part of Russia.” (p.626) For a Canadian, the unending political shifts and the cultural complexity of the area are beyond credibility. Nothing is simple. To me, what most characterizes the Ukraine is the level of involvement of ordinary citizens in the murder of Jews.

Most of the Jews who perished in the Ukraine were shot and buried in ravines and mass graves. …Little effort was made to keep the shooting secret, and many non-Jews voluntarily or involuntarily witnessed the executions or the fresh mass graves. …Dieter Pohl, a scholar who knows a great deal about the Holocaust in the Ukraine, estimates that roughly thirty to forty thousand Ukrainians took part in the murder of Jews. …In the summer of 1941, throughout the cities and towns of western Ukraine, mobs plundered, humiliated, beat, and killed Jews. The gentile town population in western Ukraine was mixed Polish and Ukrainian, and both nationalities took part in the violence. The Ukrainians, however, were more prominent. pp.628-630.

Before I point the finger at Ukrainians, noting in passing that the worst offenses seem to have occurred in western Ukraine, I cannot but reflect on how easily the masses can be stirred. In the Ukraine, at least, the explosion of violence, especially in the wake of the German attack on the USSR, may to some degree be understandable, though not less lamentable.

An angry mood prevailed in the cities because of a shocking Soviet crime that had just been discovered. Unable to evacuate all the prisoners in Lvov, Zolochiv, and elsewhere, the NKVD killed the political prisoners lest they help the Germans. Thousands of bodies were found in the basements of NKVD prisons and elsewhere through western Ukraine. Germans and Ukrainian militiamen rounded up Jews and made them lay the decomposing bodies out in rows for all to see, and to smell. The gentile population was paraded through these grisly sites on the pretext that they might recognize their relatives. This was the context in which violence against the Jews was incited. Some who did recognize their loved ones among the dead turned their anger against the Jews employed in the exhumation. In these urban pogroms, hundreds or thousands of Jews were murdered. This was killing at close range, often fueled, furthermore, by alcohol. p.630.

Again, while there is absolutely no parallel in Canada or the U.S., I cannot but note that with far less justification, race riots have occurred on this continent. Fueled by alcohol, Vancouver has seen rioters smash store windows and steal merchandise for no more serious a reason than the loss of a hockey game. Although no one was killed, the Christie Pits riots that turned 10,000 Torontonians into an angry mob remain a troublesome reminder of the level of anti-Semitism that reigned here at home during the Hitler era.

The Christie Pits riot occurred on 16 August 1933 at the Christie Pits (Willowvale Park) playground in Toronto, Canada. The riot, which lasted six hours, broke out after a quarter-final baseball game at Christie Pits between two local clubs: Harbord Playground, predominantly Jewish, and St. Peter’s, a baseball team sponsored by a church at Bathurst and Bloor.

The riot occurred six months after Adolf Hitler took power in Germany. The Toronto papers reported on how Jews were being dismissed as lawyers, professors, teachers, etc. in Germany, as well as incidents of violence against them.

At that time, the Jewish community in Toronto was predominantly poor and working-class. They were also the subject of discrimination, and were excluded from summer resorts outside of the city. Jewish families and youths in particular would therefore cool off during the hot summer months by staying in town and going to the predominantly Anglo Beaches area in order to swim. This resulted in complaints and resentment from some local residents. Some of the locals formed “Swastika Clubs”, which openly displayed the Nazi symbol to express their displeasure and make Jews feel unwanted.

The night of the riot was the second game between Harbord and St. Peter’s. Two nights earlier, at the first game of the series, a swastika had been displayed. Police were warned in writing that there could be trouble at the second game, but those warnings were ignored. After the final out of the second game, Pit Gang members displayed a blanket with a large swastika painted on it. A number of Jewish boys and young men who had heard about the previous Swastika incident rushed the Swastika sign to destroy it, supporters of both sides (including Italians who supported the Jews) from the surrounding area joined in, and a fight started.

The Toronto Daily Star described the event the next day:

“While groups of Jewish and Gentile youths wielded fists and clubs in a series of violent scraps for possession of a white flag bearing a swastika symbol at Willowvale Park last night, a crowd of more than 10,000 citizens, excited by cries of ‘Heil Hitler’ became suddenly a disorderly mob and surged wildly about the park and surrounding streets, trying to gain a view of the actual combatants, which soon developed in violence and intensity of racial feeling into one of the worst free-for-alls ever seen in the city.

Scores were injured, many requiring medical and hospital attention… Heads were opened, eyes blackened and bodies thumped and battered as literally dozens of persons, young or old, many of them non-combatant spectators, were injured more or less seriously by a variety of ugly weapons in the hands of wild-eyed and irresponsible young hoodlums, both Jewish and Gentile”.”

There was criticism of the police for not being ready to intervene, as they had been during previous potential problems in the Beach area.
The riot revealed the xenophobic attitudes toward Jews and other non-Anglo immigrants among Anglo Canadians.

From Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. For more details and citations, click here.

I deleted the next sentence, but now, I realize that I must replace it. “Jews represented the largest minority in Toronto in 1933 and were thus a target of xenophobic residents.”

That sentence struck me as an attempt to justify the reaction of 10,000 Torontonians. It struck me as saying “large minorities are (generally? often? usually? always?) perceived as a threats by the dominant majority group.” True, that may well have been the case historically in example after example, but does that make it a principle? An inevitable source of friction? A probable trigger to violence?

I Googled the statistics and find that Vancouver is 42% Asian, that nearby Richmond has a 60% “immigrant” population, as if we were not all “immigrants” in the eyes of the First Nations upon whose land we all squat. I cringed repeatedly during a recent election, when politicians who had recently welcomed Chinese investment promised to “keep Vancouver affordable for our children.” Did we not welcome the money, and send wealthy Chinese to the front of the queue of would-be immigrants? How dare we now castigate them for driving up real estate prices?

But I stray from Europe and

    Bringing the Dark Past to Light

. The chapter on the Ukraine to me is a clarion call reminding each individual and each nation that it is vital to look within before attaching blame elsewhere. Responsibility begins at home. No nation in the world has accepted this truism as whole-heartedly and fully as Germany.

In 2014, as a result of the publication of my book in German under the title

    Das Schlimmste aber war der Judenstern

, I had the opportunity to speak to hundreds of adult Germans and thousands of students. Some adults came to me with armloads of books to sign, saying “my parents were Nazis, but it ends here, with your book. The next generation, each person gets a copy of your book.” Some students came to me with questions so profound, so deep, so aware of what had occurred in the past and what may yet occur in the future unless we take serious steps to stop hatred and envy and prejudice and violence as a means of dealing with difference. Everywhere I went, I was welcomed as a Jew returning to Germany, willing to work with those who strive to create a peaceful world and to ensure that “Never Again” is more than merely a slogan.

In November 2014, I had the opportunity to speak at the Iona-Pacific Institute, UBC. These were my opening words:

Just a few days ago, on Nov 9, Angela Merkel stood at the Berlin Wall and said: “Dreams do come true; the fall of this wall is a message of confidence in our ability to tear down other walls, walls of dictatorship, violence and ideology.” She also recalled that Nov 9 is the anniversary of what we euphemistically continue to call Kristallnacht, night of shattered glass, smoothing over the fact that it was human lives that were shattered and broken.

Today, I want to take you on a journey to that brokenness, for unless we remember the horror, we have no basis for going to a place of hope.

More than any other nation, Germans remember. Here, in part, Himka and Michlic describe the current state of affairs.

What is distinctive in Germany since unification is that older forms of national commemoration – such as acts of public commemoration, state museums and memorials, or national days of remembrance – have explicitly integrated Holocaust history and memory. Two examples stand out. In 1996 the German parliament decreed that 27 January, the anniversary of the Red Army’s Liberation of Auschwitz should be a national day of remembrance; it is now a firm fixture on the national calendar. As the foreign minister put it on the occasion of the Holocaust Memorial Day in 2008, ”The Holocaust will always be for us Germans an indelible part of our history as well as an obligation and a warning.”

The same applies outside the realm of state=sponsored and state-sanctioned “memory work.” At the grassroots levels too, in communities throughout both the “new” and the “old” states of Germany, there is an active engagement with the legacy of the Holocaust which has continued the activities that rose to prominence in the 1980s. If there is one memorial project that most successfully embodies the space occupied by local initiative, and that simultaneously through the very modesty of scale of the memorials provides an effective counter to the mammoth Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, then it is Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks.) Initiated by the German artist Günter Demnig, the project entails the setting of brass cubes into the sidewalk in front of the former residences of victims of Nazism. The cubes, set flush with the ground among the pavement stones, display a script beginning with the words “Here lived….” and then recording succinctly the fate of the victims. (Hier wohnte… Deportiert… Ermordet….) Since the first stones were set in 1996, the collection throughout Germany- but also, in the meantime, Austria, the Netherlands, and Hungary- numbers more than thirteen thousand.

Long delayed, grudging, and flawed though it might have been, on both sides of the wall there had been a move to confront more openly the historical reality of the Holocaust. The integration of this trend into the postunification period provides one of the great ironies of modern German history. Where once anti-Semitism divided “Jews” from “Germans,” the remembrance of Anti-Semitism and its most horrible consequences helped restore a sense of common identity. Secondly, the centrality of the Holocaust in Germans’ understanding of their history – not only in traditional forms of remembrance like monuments, memorials, museums, and days of remembrance, but also in education and popular culture – guards against any reversion to Nazi and pre-Nazi tendencies to chauvinism. The centrality of the Holocaust, in short, ensures that the project of a restored sense of unified German identity is permanently sceptical of nationalism and wary of its perils. pp.253-255.

It is not without a sense of irony that I note that Germany today, more than any other country, gives me hope.

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