At an event hosted last week by the Holocaust Educational Trust, the keynote speaker was Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem. This dedicated, passionate Nazi-hunter delivered a riveting talk explaining how he tracks down ageing, unrepentant Nazis and brings them to book. So far, so admirable.
Then Dr Zuroff went off on a tangent. He urged us all to combat current moves in Europe to create a single day of commemoration for the victims of both Nazism and communism. He declared that the two tyrannies were not comparable. But I would suggest that, had he been born in one of the post-war communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe with his family experiencing first-hand the horrors of it all (instead of being a born-and-bred New Yorker), he might take a somewhat different view.
Zuroff further argued that equating Stalinism with Nazism — considering that many Jews were involved in implementing Stalinist dictatorships in Eastern Europe — implied that Jews have been not only the victims of evil, but its perpetrators, too, a notion he rejected. Yet, however unpalatable this may be, the point surely is that it is true.
Take Hungary, for example. For a decade after the Second World War, it was run by the bloodthirsty Matyas Rakosi, and we cannot pretend he wasn’t a Jew (albeit not a practising one). Of course, by then Hungary had already suffered under the short-lived Red Terror regime of 1919, installed by Bela Kun, another secular Jew. Antisemitism persists in those countries because people have long memories and, sadly, don’t always recognise that communist tormentors such Rakosi and Kun, along with many of their henchmen, were Muscovites first and Jews a very distant second.
My mother’s name is engraved on the Honour Wall at Yad Vashem for rescuing several Jewish friends in Budapest during the Nazi occupation. She risked her life for them, was ultimately arrested and very nearly killed by the Gestapo. Yet after the siege of Budapest, when the Germans had been routed and the Red Army installed, a group of newly empowered Jewish partisans, hungry for revenge, wrongly accused my mother of collaboration. It was a Russian colonel who narrowly prevented them from executing her.
Surely, facts like these bring home the great truth that all people are capable of both good and evil — not to mention appalling misjudgment. I believe that Jews are an outstandingly gifted people, who make invaluable contributions to any society lucky enough to have them. But the kind of double standard espoused by Dr Zuroff does the Jewish community no favours.
I had a brief chat with him after his lecture, although he did most of the talking (he’s a bit of a bulldozer, doubtless a useful trait for Nazi-hunting). He reiterated his view that the Nazi genocide was in a different class to killing millions in the name of communism because, while the Nazis targeted all Jews, whoever they were, “with the communists, you could choose to work with them”.
Oh, really? Virtually the entire Ukrainian peasantry was annihilated in Stalin’s artificially created famine of 1932-33 (an act often described as genocide), in which an estimated seven million people starved to death in the USSR. Those victims were not given the choice of working with the communist regime. And what of the countless fervently loyal communists who were tortured into signing false confessions and executed, as part of the depraved Communist Party agenda? No, working with (and for) the comrades did not necessarily save you.
The Holocaust was indeed unique. So, in its way, was communist tyranny. But murder is murder, whichever wicked beliefs are used to justify it. Ultimately, whether you are tortured to death by the Gestapo or the KGB, whether you die of starvation and disease in a Nazi concentration camp or in the Gulag, the end result is the same. Let us stop comparing and contrasting the crimes of the 20th century; let’s just apply their lessons to the 21st.