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Presentation to The Amsterdam Conference on Remembrance May 2001

(Posted to this site on 9/15/2006)

Professor Yehuda Bauer’s Presentation
to The Amsterdam Conference on Remembrance, May 2001

It is used here with permission.

Professor Bauer is the Academic Advisor to the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research. His presentation was made in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, during the Task Force’s meeting in May 2001.

video-clipView an excerpt of Professor Bauer’s speech. [535 KB]

It is now fairly exactly three years ago that the Swedish government initiated the establishment of the International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. Now, for the first time, the Government of the Netherlands has assumed the role of Chair in this body, which now encompasses ten governments, and a number of expert institutions and individuals in each of them. I am sure we all wish our Dutch friends the best of success and fruitful work. I am also sure that we all wish to thank our German friends for the outstanding work they did, and at their head our colleague Albert Spiegel, as Chair during the past year. I think that this a suitable moment to review what we have done, why we have done it, and where, possibly, we are going.

The reasons why the Swedish government initiated this project are not far to seek. There seemed to be a dangerous development among Swedish youth away from democracy, and towards the acceptance of Neo-Nazi propaganda and denial. Therefore, already in 1997, a major effort began to develop suitable educational tools to fight this tendency, based on teaching the Holocaust. The Task Force was a further step in the same direction, on an international scale. But that does not answer the question why, in order to act against the dangers of racist, anti-democratic extremism, the Holocaust was chosen to serve as the focal point of this effort. The Swedish Prime Minister, and in his wake the founders of the Task Force, and the 47 governments that met at the Stockholm Forum of January 2000, saw and see the Holocaust, I think, in two main ways: one, as a defining moment in European and world history, in its specificity, in the fact that here, in the midst of a civilized continent, a monster could arise that threatened a whole people with total extinction. Two, the Holocaust as a symbol for genocide as such, and therefore also for mass murder, racism, hatred of foreigners, antisemitism, hatred of the other – all these ways in which we are a danger to ourselves in a massive way. From the very beginning we spoke of Holocaust and Genocide as the contents of our educational efforts. We realized, I think, that the specificity of the Holocaust as an attack on a very specific people makes it a universal issue, because all genocides and mass murders, all racist phenomena, all attacks on other peoples, other cultures and other religions will always be specific, targeting specific groups for specific reasons at specific times. Every genocide will always be very particular, and therefore very universal. Any ethnic, national, racial or religious group can be the target of genocide, any political group the target of mass murder; the universality of the danger therefore lies in the very particular character of each such genocide or mass murder. So there is no contradiction between the specificity of the Holocaust, and its universal meaning – on the contrary, they are two sides of exactly the same coin. Neither does dealing with the Holocaust deflect us from dealing with other genocides – on the contrary, the Holocaust, the best researched genocide, is a symbol for other disasters, and enables us to approach them with much greater understanding.

But there was another realization, I believe, that went along with all this: the crimes perpetrated by National Socialism were of an unprecedented character. By that I do not mean that they were more sadistic or less sadistic, more evil or less evil, more murderous or less murderous, than those of the Mongols, or of the Spaniards in the New World, or of the European powers in the colonies, or of the innumerable wars and massacres throughout human history. There is no gradation of suffering, no way to measure pain, no way to talk about more or less torture. The competition that one often hears between politicians representing victim communities is grotesque. Jews, Roma, Russians, Tutsi, Ibos, Ache Indians, Armenians, Kurds – when we speak of the major human catastrophes involving many thousands of people, it is morally indefensible, I think, to create a scale of victimization. But National Socialism did not just inflict horrendous suffering on many millions of people, did not only commit mass murder and genocide, but it proposed to reorganize humanity in a way that was radically different from the ways humanity had been organized before. Now, we all know of any number of instances where believers in one religion tried, and still try today, to impose their belief system on others. We know any number of cases of one national, ethnic or racial group expanding, conquering and ruling others. We also know of the many attempts that were made throughout human history to change the social order and have dominant social groups replaced by lower ones. Communism, until it became a pretext for Great Russian imperialism, was such an attempt, but there have been others before it. However, National Socialism was different: originally a nationalist movement, it then tried to reorganize all of society according to races, an attempt that had never been made before; and it did not want to do it just in one country, but all over the globe. Of course, the scientific basis of National Socialist biological racism was and is very shaky. It is doubtful whether the concept of race has any basis to it – most scientists believe that all of humanity originates in Africa, except that some of us are descended from people who spent a few tens of thousands of years, perhaps more, in northern climates, so their pigmentation and some other outward characteristics changed. Certainly, the concepts of so-called ‘blood’ with which the Nazis operated, is pure nonsense. Yet National Socialism as a race theory conquered universities, and brilliant intellectuals with a vast range of knowledge adhered to this ideology which negated all of what humanity had achieved until then. As they wanted to make this ideology into a universal dogma, they tried to make a revolution unequaled in human history, I would argue the only real revolutionary attempt in the twentieth century. Genocides had been committed before them, and were committed after them; but with the National Socialists, genocide became an inherent, essential component of a general threat to human civilization – again, I must insist, something that had no precedent. I would therefore argue that the unprecedentedness of the Holocaust as an attempt to eradicate a people, all of them, every single individual of their number, ultimately everywhere in the world, by a modern industrial machinery, is based on the unprecedentedness of National Socialism as a threat to all humans. The point, of course, is that this particular and extreme version of racism is by no means dead, but is alive, well, and kicking. Hence the Task Force, hence our meeting here.

What have done so far? We are engaged on what we call liaison projects, efforts to propagate the teaching of the Holocaust, and on that basis of other genocides, in countries that turn to us for assistance. We are engaged on this in the Czech Republic, and we are at the beginning of parallel projects in Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Romania, and Argentina. We help each other, the member states of the Task Force, and have opened a web site where interested people can gather relevant information. We have established working groups that deal with exchange of information and mutual fructification regarding Holocaust memorials and museums, with educational matters, with the liaison projects, and allied matters. We have suggested to governments to establish national Holocaust memorial days. We are only at the beginning of the road. The liaison projects are still at their beginning, and so are the other aspects of our work. We have not really begun to deal with the third branch of our mandate – research. But we have established a unique international body, that has so far worked in surprising harmony, overcoming occasional disagreements to create a wide-reaching consensus.

The basic idea was to create a political, diplomatic governmental umbrella for this unique educational project. Do we need the politicians? I think we definitely do. In the end it is the governments that provide the political legitimacy, sometimes also the very basis of educational work. A close and friendly collaboration has developed between the political and the expert population in our Task Force, in itself an unusual development. Is our work needed? I think so, and the more countries join us and use our expertise, the greater, hopefully, will be the impact of our effort to prepare the future generations for a world that might possibly, hopefully, be slightly better than the one in which we currently live.

Can the Holocaust, and the dangers of genocide and mass murder generally, be the content of an educational effort? I would view the term education in a very broad sense. We do not only educate the young. We educate ourselves, whether we are aware of it or not, throughout our lives. We influence each other and our own selves through experience, through the media, we are impacted on by our societies, and of course schooling is a powerful agent in the education of the young generation. It is a natural reaction to shy away from danger, to deny it when threats becomes very powerful, and to protect the young from contact with life-threatening situations, past or present. Our schooling, until our own times, very largely avoided what one might call the dark side of human history. We taught, and to a considerable degree still teach, about heroes, kings and presidents, successful politicians and generals, about great artists, scientists and reformers. We do not ask searching questions about misery and suffering, we prefer not to mention these to our children, or at least this is what we did until recently. But half of human history is mayhem, chaos and pain, and if we want to do our share in trying to prevent all this, we must tell our children and ourselves what happened and why. In this sense, our task is political – not party political, and not a matter of national politics. But it is clear, is it not, that what we want to achieve is to make the world just ever so slightly better than it is; we are not searching for an utopia, because all universal utopias lead to mass murder, and we do not kid ourselves that we can create a good world. The communists tried that, and the National Socialists, and religious fundamentalists tried and still try today – and look what it has led to. But we might, we just might, improve our world slightly, very slightly, and I think most of us will agree that that is a worthwhile thing to do.

Can we educate? If we teach ourselves and our young what I prefer to call the dark side of the moon of humanity only, we will chase everyone away, because we will then have no positive role-model that we can present as a counterweight to the evil we must describe. True, we can describe, cognitively and emotionally, how and why National Socialism, for instance, came to power, and thus warn our pupils and ourselves of the dire consequences of apathy and lack of defense of democratic principles. But when we do that, we still remain in the realm of negative teaching. In a number of societies this is the way the Holocaust and other genocides have been taught, and the students turn away from that, they no longer want to hear it. You cannot sensitize your students by simply repeating horror stories, true as they may be. We must find, and I think we are finding, a different kind of synthesis.

You see, the Holocaust, that extreme, and best-researched case of genocide, turns out to be also the arena for the most amazing examples of the other side of human capability, namely that of self-sacrifice for others, of our ability to stand up for moral values that we and our listeners will admire.

In a sense, therefore, we are in the business of prevention of major human-made catastrophes. We know that genocide and mass murder are an existential danger to all humanity, and our educational effort is directed to minimize that danger as much as we can. When we have Holocaust memorials or memorials to other genocides or mass murders, we do the same thing: they are a warning and an educational tool at the same time. When we do research, we train teachers, and perhaps even politicians and other multiplicators, who will hopefully, ultimately, possibly, contribute to an atmosphere of prevention. I think it is only natural, that whoever takes upon themselves the onerous task of education about Holocaust and genocide, begins to think of other ways as well to achieve the same aim, namely the extremely difficult and complex aim of working towards a diminution, if not eradication, of these tragedies. I don’t have to detail here why this is a difficult task, and why most people today think that anyone engaged on it is a naive dreamer. We all know that we live in a world of personal, group and national self-interest, of sovereignty of states, of conflicts and mutual hatred. Is there then a chance at all of working against that?
I think there is, and be it ever so slight. The proof lies in the rescuers during the Holocaust. We are capable, they teach us, of different behavior, though the road to that end is extremely difficult and is strewn with innumerable obstacles. Peace is usually the interval between two wars – can we possibly change that? Can we prevent ourselves from using the tremendous capabilities for mutual destruction? The jury is very much still out on this, but we are, I think, obligated by the moral principles we so much talk about to at least try. There will be no advance on that front without a change in the public mood, and that is unlikely to happen without a tremendous educational effort. Education, again, of young people but not only of young people. We must think of using the media, of influencing the directors of our economic structures, and of course ultimately the political world. The Task Force has no mandate to do that, but it does have the mandate to contribute an essential building brick to a structure of prevention of mass tragedies – namely the brick of education, remembrance and research.

There is a tiny hamlet in what is now Western Belarus, about 100 kilometers east of Vilnius, called Kurzeniec. It was once a typical Jewish shtetl, with 1500 Jews and about 500 non-Jews. The Jews were craftsmen, farmers and peddlers, and there was a Polish school there, headed by a man called Matoros. Most of the non-Jews in Kurzeniec and around it were Belorussians. When the Soviets came, in 1939, a small number of young Jews set up what was an underground group of people who wanted Jewish education, in Hebrew, and yearned to leave the place and go to Palestine, which of course was seen as an anti-Soviet activity. Then the German occupation came, and Matoros was nominated by the Germans to be the new head of the township. A POW transit camp, a Durchgangslager, was set up in the market place, for huge numbers of Soviet soldiers, starved, torn, wounded, and sick, before they were transported to even worse camps further west. The young Jews in the place became slaves who had to carry whatever food and water was given to the starving multitudes of prisoners within the barbed wire fence on the square. Young Nachum Alperowicz was one of them. A Russian Captain, Pyotr Michailowich Daniloshkin, tattered and starving, was among the prisoners, and was looking for an escape. Alperowicz put on two sets of dirty rags that served the Jews as working clothes, and gave one to Daniloshkin, who became a Jewish slave worker in the chaos of the square. At the end of the day, in August of 1941, Daniloshkin escaped, as part of the Jewish labor squad. Under the nom de guerre Volodia, he became the commander of the first partisan group in the area, and accepted Jews into his detachment. Matoros aided the Jewish underground, and so did a number of Belorussian peasants in surrounding villages. When the Germans murdered Jewish Kurzeniec, many Jews resisted individually, and 300 escaped into the forest. For two years and more many of them fought the murderers, many others, the weak, old, and very young and their parents, were protected by Volodia and the partisans. Nevertheless, many died in the terrible conditions they had to face.Yet 120 survived, including Alperowicz. Volodia became Daniloshkin again after the war, a teacher, and Alperowicz became a worker in Israel. Both of them told their story after the war, and so did many of the survivors. A righteous Jew saved a righteous non-Jew, that is the point; they endangered their lives for each other and for the people around them. There were few individuals like that, I know, and most people did not behave like them, but some did, many thousands did, and they give us the right to teach, because they and those who acted like them provide the role models we need in order to say that yes, it is difficult, but yes, it is possible.

video-clipView an excerpt of Professor Bauer’s speech.