WHAT IS HOLOCAUST DISTORTION?
Holocaust distortion, also known as Holocaust revisionism, is the distortion or denial of well-established historical facts about the Holocaust, without outright denying that the Holocaust took place.
According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, “Distortion of the Holocaust is rhetoric, written work, or other media that excuse, minimize, or misrepresent the known historical record.” Whether this is done intentionally or unintentionally is irrelevant, as in the end the impact is just as harmful either way.
All Holocaust distortion is dangerous and feeds into antisemitic narratives that directly lead to violent antisemitism. A danger of Holocaust distortion is that from the outside, it might appear more credible than outright Holocaust denial. According to the IHRA Honorary Chairman Yehuda Bauer, “A half truth is worse than a full lie.”
To learn more about Holocaust distortion, please see my recent post WHAT IS HOLOCAUST DISTORTION?
On March 20, 2022, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, appealed to the Israeli Knesset (parliament) to provide military aid to Ukraine. In his speech, Zelenskyy invoked Holocaust comparisons multiple times and falsely claimed that Ukrainians had rallied to support the Jewish People during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, this is not true; for example, the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police played a massive role in the Babyn Yar massacre, when nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered in the span of only two days. The Babyn Yar massacre was the largest single massacre to take place during the Holocaust.
Many Jewish Holocaust experts criticized Zelenskyy’s false claims, including Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum. It’s evident, of course, that Zelenskyy and Ukraine are in a desperate situation, and that they are trying to appeal to allies in any way they can. However, that doesn’t mean that Holocaust distortion is not dangerous, because it is. There is also another factor to consider: while we don’t know for sure if Zelenskyy made those claims out of ignorance, what we do know is that Zelenskyy grew up in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union was infamous for teaching Holocaust distortion and revisionism.
SOVIET HOLOCAUST DISTORTION
The Soviet Union infamously began distorting the history and the facts of the Holocaust even before the war was won. The Soviet propaganda machine never acknowledged the specifically antisemitic nature of the Holocaust, but instead, depicted all Soviets (as well as communism) as the main victims of the Nazis.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the Soviet leader during WWII, Joseph Stalin, was a vehement antisemite who later likely plotted a Jewish ethnic cleansing and genocidal campaign of his own. Thankfully, because of his sudden death, the plan never came to fruition (see my post THE DOCTORS’ PLOT). Nevertheless, long after Stalin, the Soviet Union continued to deny the antisemitic nature of the Holocaust. This distortion and denial continues in post-Soviet and post-Eastern Block nations to this day.
The Soviet state also severely repressed Jewish culture, practice, and education, leaving Soviet Jews with almost no recourses to learn of the truth on their own (see my post REFUSENIKS for more).
THE USSR DURING THE HOLOCAUST
Despite the false Soviet reinterpretation of the Holocaust, the fact of the matter is that 3 million Jews were murdered at the hands of the Germans and their collaborators in Soviet territory. In fact, in the span of just a year and a half following the German occupation of the Soviet Union, 98% of Jews who’d remained in those territories had been murdered. When the Nazis established ghettos in Soviet territories, they often didn’t even bother to set up fences, as the local populations were so antisemitic that the Nazis had no concern that they might try to hide or protect Jews.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Soviet propaganda machine began to universalize the Holocaust; in other words, they stripped the Jewish and Romani genocide of its specifically antisemitic and anti-Romani nature and instead depicted the event as a genocide targeting all Soviets. Why?
The first reason, of course, is likely antisemitism and anti-Roma racism. The second reason, however, is that the Soviets needed to “re-indoctrinate” the local populations that had been subjected to years of Nazi propaganda. To depict Jews as the main victims of the Holocaust wouldn’t serve that purpose; after all, the local populations were undoubtedly deeply antisemitic and had no problem with the mass extermination of the local Jewry. However, by depicting all Soviets as victims, the state was able to unify the country against a common enemy (i.e. the Nazis), once again bringing the formerly Nazi-occupied territories into the Soviet fold.
By the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, 46 years of Soviet Holocaust distortion, universalization, and miseducation had left their mark in post-Soviet states. For example, to this day, it’s taboo to talk about the former Jewish populations that once existed in said territories. It’s even more taboo to bring up the role that the local populations played in assisting the Nazi genocide of the Jewish People, so much so, that in Poland (a former Eastern Bloc country, though not a former Soviet republic itself), for example, it’s literally illegal to accuse the Polish people of complicity or collaboration during the Holocaust.
In post-Soviet countries such as Lithuania and Ukraine, the memory of the Holocaust is often pitted against the memory of other atrocities, particularly atrocities perpetrated against the people at the hands of the Soviet state (an example being the Holodomor. For more on this, see my post THE HOLODOMOR & UKRAINIAN JEWS).
I of course have zero way of knowing why Zelenskyy made the erroneous claims he made, although I believe it likely stems out of ignorance — ignorance that could very well be the result of Soviet miseducation. We do know that Zelenskyy is in a desperate situation, and that he is trying to appeal to the world in any way that he possibly can. This doesn’t mean that Holocaust distortion isn’t dangerous, though, which is why proper education is so important.
Ukraine, like nearly all other Nazi-occupied territories, overwhelmingly behaved terribly during the Holocaust. But our support of the Ukrainian people today should not be predicated on Ukraine’s behavior 80 years ago; instead, we should support Ukrainians today because it is simply the right and humanitarian thing to do. Allyship and solidarity shouldn’t be transactional — that’s not what our Jewish values teach us.
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