The Holocaust, and the perpetrators of that hideous crime, may seem like a purely academic subject. However, its lessons, the racism underlying that systematic industrialised murder, and the tribulations of the victims, have contemporary relevance. First, let’s look at a human interest story, and then elaborate on how the memory of the Holocaust (and World War 2 more generally) impacts political developments today.
Zoe Zolbrod, writing in Salon magazine, explains her emotional and heart-rending struggle with the realisation – when she was an adult – that her great-grandparents perished in a concentration camp. This information was kept from her throughout her childhood. This revelation – that her great-grandparents were among the millions exterminated – was profoundly shocking to her.
As an adolescent, she wondered about what would have happened to her if she had lived through the Nazi German experience. She explained how she wrestled with her concept of Jewishness – was it cultural, passed down through the genes, or a combination of both? She grappled with wider questions, even though her experience of Judaic identity was largely confined to religious-cultural celebrations of Jewish holidays with extended family.
By the by, the late geneticist and professor Richard Lewontin, wrote in a lengthy article for the New York Review of Books that despite the best efforts of DNA experts, there is no such thing as a ‘Jewish gene.’
Interestingly, as Palestinian American academic Joseph Massad points out, the insistence on a gene-bloodline definition of Jewishness is shared by the Zionist and the antisemite. The characterisation of Jews as a racially distinct people forms the ideological basis not only of Zionist groups, but also of antisemitic ones too.
Antisemitism is the crucial underpinning of Nazism, and also of the ethnonationalist Eastern European organisations that collaborated in the mass killings of European Jews in WW2. The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its associated military formation, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), participated in the ethnic cleansing of Jews in lands that the Nazi forces occupied in Eastern Europe.
With that in mind, let’s consider another human interest story, but this one has more direct political implications. The Canadian Dimension magazine published a report highlighting the presence of a rather curious statue in Oakville, Toronto; a commemorative monument to the Ukrainian 14th Grenadier Waffen SS division. A unit made up mostly of ultranationalist and racist Ukrainians, this division fought in the service of Nazi Germany, and participated in the mass killings of Jews, Poles, Russians and non-Ukrainian ethnic minorities.
Deriving its ideology from the OUN, this outfit made no secret of whom it considered the main enemy – the Jewish people. The OUN leadership, under its cult-like leader Stepan Bandera, singled out the Jews as the original enemy to be annihilated. Blaming ‘Muscovy Communism’ – shorthand for Marxism – on the Jews, the ultranationalist outlook of the OUN found common cause with other Germans and Eastern European formations with a similar racist ideology.
It is no secret that the malicious trope of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ has experienced a resurgence in Eastern European nations where the far right is politically active. Why are Ukrainian communities in Canada actively rehabilitating the reputation of those ultranationalist groups which cooperated in the Holocaust?
That is a question only the Canadian Ukrainian community can answer. What we can observe here is that it is an appalling rebuff to the memory of the Holocaust’s victims to rehabilitate the doctrines and practices of their murderers.
Before any simpletons accuse me of recycling Red Communist propaganda from Kremlin, consider the following. The Polish government, which is a strong ally of the Kyiv regime, nevertheless maintains a principled position regarding the Volhynia massacres. The latter involved the widespread killings of Polish people, in the Nazi-occupied Volhynia region, by the Ukrainian Nazi collaborator group, the OUN and its military wing. These massacres of Poles, in the northwest region of today’s Ukraine, were carried out in pursuit of the stated Ukrainian nationalist goal of an ethnically ‘pure’ nation.
While the Polish government has stood by its Ukrainian ally, it has also insisted on commemorating the Polish victims of homicidal Ukrainian ultrarightist nationalism. Bilateral relations between the two nations are ongoing, but the lack of acknowledgement by Kyiv of the OUN’s atrocities committed against Polish people during WW2 has left a sour note between the two neighbours. The Volhynia massacres remain an emotional touchstone for Polish recollections of the war.
Let’s make one last observation about the importance of remembering the Holocaust and understanding who helped in the commission of that crime. Please do not think it is intentional to ‘pick on’ Ukraine; earlier this year, the graves of 700 Yugoslav partisans, interred at a necropolis in Mostar, Bosnia, were systematically vandalised. These graves, of those who fought for a multiethnic Yugoslavia, were attacked by Croat ultrarightists, the ideological heirs of the genocidal and Nazi-collaborating Ustashe.
The Ustashe, whose adherents were provided sanctuary after WW2 by the United States and Australia, advocate a view of history untainted by their active participation in the mass murder of Jews and ethnic minorities. What is the purpose of vandalising the graves of anti fascist fighters, if not to repudiate the multiethnic vision of a united Yugoslavia? It is high time to respect the victims of the Holocaust by repudiating the ideology of those who participated in it, and whose ideological heirs today wish for its repetition.