Last August, in an event which attracted little attention in the international media, Marek Olszewski, the head of Poland’s national tourist organisation, was fired. It turned out that he had removed Auschwitz from the itinerary for foreign journalists’ visits. When challenged he said: “As the head of the Polish tourist organisation, who loves his country, I want to show its best side, through our monuments, culture, hospitality, wonderful music . . . I do not need to expose places and events connected with the history of other nations.” And: “It was Poles, not the Jewish elites, that were completely ploughed and liquidated during the war. Let us remember that the whole Jewish culture in practice has survived.” Olszewski ran for election a number of times as a member Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party.
The fact of his immediate firing, coupled with the fact that a man in such a prominent position felt able to act and speak as he did, points to an important aspect of Holocaust commemoration. For many years now it has been becoming an important part of European identity, almost a new European religion. The Holocaust was at the core of the new European Union project, which is why to deny it is now a crime in many countries. But that doesn’t mean underlying attitudes have changed.
This issue reemerged last week, by an awful irony on Holocaust Commemoration Day, when the lower house of the Polish parliament proposed a law which would make it a criminal offence to imply Polish complicity in the Holocaust. In Poland as in many Eastern European countries, the issue of commemoration remains an explosive one.
For the Irish the entry ticket to Europe was cheap. After all, the Holocaust didn’t happen here. The Holocaust Education Trust Ireland has done great work in raising awareness of the Holocaust through educational programmes where children can meet Holocaust survivors, and in organising the annual Holocaust Memorial event in the Mansion House. However, there is always something faintly comical yet nauseating at seeing some Irish politicans solemnly talking of xenophobia and discrimination, mouthing the platitudes they have learned are required of the Good European. After all, most of them are members of parties which continue to disgrace themselves in their treatment of Ireland’s minority ethnic group of Travellers, have presided over the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers which is direct provision, and been slow to accept Syrian refugees. As Ernie O’Malley wrote, it’s easy to lie on another man’s wound.
That entry ticket was far more expensive and problematic for some other countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, where the Holocaust is bound up with sensitive historical issues. Lithuania is a good example. Of Lithuania’s prewar Jewish population of 210,000, only about 10,000 survived. A few years ago I visited the tiny if very moving Holocaust Museum in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, called The Green House.
It turned out that one of the co-founders of the museum, Rachel Margolis, a women in her nineties, could not return to Vilnius from Israel to visit it because she was under investigation for war crimes. Like a number of others involved with the museum, she had escaped from a wartime ghetto and joined the partisans, fighting Nazis and their nationalist Lithuanian supporters. In some post-Soviet countries there have been attempts to put Communism on a par with Nazism in terms of war crimes, and rehabilitate ‘Nationalists’, so this Holocaust survivor was therefore potentially a war criminal. In its rush to get the former Soviet satellites into Europe, all these unresolved issues around nationalism were conveniently ignored, to re-emerge recently in the virulent form of racist and xenophobic reactions to the arrival of Syrian refugees in countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic, and the rise to power of right-wing populist leaders in those countries.
The question which should arise every year from Holocaust commemoration is: how can we stop it happening again? For a long time after the war, this seemed a rhetorical question. Genocide was still taking place of course, but only in places far from our backyards, like Cambodia. Then, in the 1990s, genocide returned to Europe in the former Yugoslavia, and Europe, for a long time, did very little about it. On this Holocaust Commemoration day we can once again reflect on the failure of Europe to intervene as we watch refugees drown while attempting to cross to safety in Europe, fleeing from murderous regimes, as Jewish refugees once attempted to escape the Holocaust. As the American writer, David Reiff, puts it : ‘Since 1945, “never again” has meant, essentially, “Never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.”
The Holocaust was possible because of the culture of racism, populism and nationalism which was prevalent in parts of Europe in the 1930s. On this Holocaust Memorial Day, if we mean what we say when we say ‘Never Again’, we need to focus on fighting with every means at our disposal against the rise of nationalist, right-wing populism in our own European backyard.
Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and poet. January 27th was International Holocaust Remembrance Day