Revealed: How a Soviet general inspired Holocaust Memorial Day
Some of the most chilling words ever spoken by a Nazi to a Jew occur at the end of the film Schindler’s List. On the day Germany surrenders, an SS officer tells Schindler’s bookkeeper: “The worst thing we ever did to you is that, when you come to tell people what we did, no one will ever believe you”.
It was this thought — making people believe the unbelievable, and the need not just to commemorate, but also to present the evidence of how and when, and where, and on whose initiative the Holocaust had taken place — that informed much of the work of the Yad Vashem — on whose committee I sat — and kindred organisations.
But the emphasis changed radically in 1991. Before that date, Holocaust deniers were treated as “Second World War flat-earthers”, but in that year, their ranks were swollen by the arrival of a full-blown denier, David Irving.
Irving, in the previous 30 years, had acquired credibility as a Second World War historian, and especially as a researcher. He achieved this despite having been successfully sued for libel by Captain Broome, commander of the Russian Arctic Convoy, PQ 17, whom he had wrongly accused of cowardice.
Irving was successfully sued on four other occasions but this was still several years before his crushing libel defeat against the journalist Deborah Lipstadt, when Mr Justice Grey branded him an antisemite and Holocaust denier, and Professor Richard Evans, in his evidence, showed how he lied about Hitler.
Back in 1991, he still had supporters among the academic community, and it was not immediately clear how to deal with him.
Up to that year, Irving, who had written some 30 books on the Second World War, had contented himself by asserting that, in so far as there was a Holocaust, it was on a much smaller scale than previously thought, and, in any case, Hitler knew little about it. It was all the work of Himmler and the SS.
His change of tack can best be summed up by his statement: “More people died in the back seat of Teddy Kennedy’s car in Chapaquidick than were gassed in Auschwitz”.
At the beginning of 1993, I chanced upon a placard outside the newsagent at Finchley Road station. It advertised an article in the Listener magazine by historian Professor Alan Bullock, entitled The Evil Dream”. I was an avid reader of anything Bullock wrote — he was the first biographer of Hitler in 1956, and in 1993 was bringing out another book on Hitler and Stalin.
The article dealt with the split between Holocaust scholars at the time. One camp, called the “Intentionalists” and led by Lucy Davidowitz, maintained that Hitler’s purpose from the very beginning was the destruction of European Jewry. The second group, called “Functionalists”, saw the phenomenon as a two-way process, with not only orders coming from the top down, but with initiatives coming from the bottom up.
What Bullock did in this article was to produce a synthesis of the two ideas, which, he said, were not mutually exclusive. But one thing, he maintained, was a constant — Hitler’s twin dream of the destruction of the Jews and the destruction of the Soviet Union.
I rang Ben Helfgot, chairman of the Yad Vashem committee,who had always been hugely helpful, although I was not yet clear what I was going to suggest.
I then rang Bullock and after introductions (I’d met him at Oxford in the 1950s), he asked me what I wanted from him. I replied that if he would consent to give a lecture, we would reprint 20,000 copies of the Listener article, and send them to every history faculty and sixth-form college in the world.
There was a momentary pause, and then Bullock said that was an offer no one could refuse and agreed to give the lecture in London later in the year.
We arranged it for the autumn, at the Logan Hall, and pre-sold 1,000 tickets. Bullock had given his talk the title “Hitler and the Holocaust”. As he began speaking, he said he would address two or three related but separate issues. The first was the scope of the Holocaust. Bullock stated that his research showed that at the least, some five million, and at the higher end, some six million victims had been exterminated and that this percentage of destruction of an identifiable homogenous group was the highest in history.
The second issue was that he traced Hitler’s personal knowledge and control of the genocide. But it was the third part of the lecture that was to prove sensational. Bullock drew our attention to the work of Dr Gerald Fleming, reader in German at Surrey University and someone who had been engaged in Holocaust scholarship for more than 30 years, during which time he had confronted Irving more than once.
In 1991 Fleming came across what he described to me as a KGB magazine. In it there was a letter to the editor asking why what he called the “Auschwitz archive” was kept under lock and key in Moscow. The archive contained all the material removed from Auschwitz in the first three weeks after its liberation. The letter-writer urged that it should be made available to scholars.
From that moment, Fleming bombarded the Russians with telegrams and finally obtained permission for him and his colleague, Professor Robert Jan van Pelt, to spend two months studying the contents of the archive.
It contained all the drawings and architects’ plans of everything in Auschwitz; showing who had supplied the crematoria; who had built the gas chambers; every detail of the operation from its beginning to January 1945. It named participants who worked in Auschwitz, and who supplied the instruments of destruction, with precise details of contracts, construction and operating procedures.
Here, indeed, were the “nuts and bolts” of Auschwitz. It was the most comprehensive information of such an operation in the Second World War. Fleming and Van Pelt published their findings in 1992-93.
The only remaining question for us was how to publish the information. But sitting in the audience at the Logan Hall that night was a young BBC producer named Isabelle Rosin, who worked for Horizon, a science documentary series on BBC2.
She began to urge her bosses to be allowed to make a film disclosing Fleming’s and van Pelt’s finding. At first, the Horizon producers were reluctant, simply because it was a science programme. Her point was that here was history revealed in architectural drawings. Finally she got her way and in 1994 The Blueprints of Genocide was broadcast in 94 countries to an audience of 130 million people.
The film also chronicled the liberation of the camp, and the four officers who commanded the operation. One of them, the Soviet General Petrenko, was still alive.
We were preparing to organise the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I got hold of a Russian interpreter and found the general’s phone number. I told him that we were planning a special screening of the Horizon film. “On that day,” I said, “I think your place is with us”.
He agreed to come to London, provided I could get visas for him and his interpreter. I said that should not be a problem, but on the day they presented themselves at the British Consulate in Moscow, they were made to wait four hours and then told to come back the next day. It required an intervention by the then-foreign secretary Douglas Hurd to get the visas.
On the day of the commemoration, long queues formed outside the venue an hour before opening. Some 1,500 people attended, many of them survivors.
There were a number of excellent speeches, and I particularly recall the contributions of the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, both former Auschwitz inmates. The film was shown, and finally came General Petrenko’s talk. It lasted for about 20 minutes and then, towards the end, came the words: “My government would like to support the naming of January 27 as an annual Holocaust memorial day”.
Many years were to pass before such a day was actually set up, and there were many contributors to move the idea forward, but the fact remains that those words uttered by the general was the first time the idea an annual memorial day had been raised.
In his speech, the general had specifically referred to the Russian Second World War casualty figures, conservatively estimated at approximately 22 million, including six million killed.
Apart from thousands of Jewish partisan fighters, there were probably some 200,000 Jewish soldiers in the ranks of the Red Army; there were certainly 300 Jewish generals.
I tried to address the general’s remarks in my vote of thanks. I said: “ The Jewish people and the Russian people share one aspect of their lives in common. They count their innumerable dead “approximately”. I’ve heard that word all my life. Approximately six million victims of the Shoah, approximately 22 million Russian casualties, including six million killed, or is it six-and-a-quarter million or six-and-a-half million? A quarter of a million up, or a quarter of a million down. And in the field of accurate scholarship it is entirely right that that word ‘approximately’ be used. We shall never know precisely the figure of the slaughtered.”
But in the field of commemoration, the word “approximately” has no place. I have never met any approximate mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins or friends. Each is remembered as a unique individual and recalled with great precision.
So where are we now? Acts of extermination have not ceased; Cambodia, Srbrenica, Rwanda are testimony to the persistence of such acts. Nor has Holocaust denial vanished, either in an academic or a populist sense — Iran recently hosted an international conference for Holocaust deniers.
The raising of an inverted Hitler salute, not just on the football field but at the very gates of Auschwitz, testifies to the persistence of the longest hatred and with it “the assault on truth and memory” in Deborah Lipstadt’s phrase.
Perhaps, after all, that persistence is what is meant by the words in the Haggadah: “In every generation men have risen up to destroy us”. The need to confront this ongoing attempt to deny historical truth devolves upon each generation anew and in this battle, there are no permanent victories.
Fred Barschak is a businessman and an ex-member of the Yad Vashem committee