Friday, Jan. 27, the 61st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Red Army, was chosen as the UN’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. Prof. Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli who happens to be a member of the Meretz party, delivered the first of what is intended as an annual address.
He spoke in impeccable English with the clarity and balance that one has grown to expect of this renowned Holocaust historian. Not for a minute did he compromise on the unparalleled calamity that the Jewish people suffered during World War II. Nor did he ignore mass crimes perpetrated by the Nazis on other people, and by a variety of people against others in the decades since. In fact, Prof. Bauer also classifies as “genocide” the crimes committed against the Polish nation and the Gypsy (or Roma) people. (I don’t know that I agree with him regarding the Poles, but never mind.)
And Bauer did not spare the current Iranian regime and similar contemporary Islamist extremist movements for their genocidal threats against the Jewish people today. But his refusal to stake primary Jewish ownership of the term, genocide, is typical of his measured, humane approach to the world.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles likewise attempts to exemplify this humanistic spirit. It is a Holocaust museum, but also an effort to universalize the centuries of Jewish suffering as a function of the same malady of bigotry and hatred that threatens all of us in some way.
[For example, I recall a multi-media presentation on the abuse of women. This hit one middle-aged male visitor so hard — perhaps too close to home — that he raged (frighteningly) about how the exhibit was really anti-male.]
But let’s not be fooled. The Wiesenthal Center constantly sends out fund-raising appeals based on playing up every possible anti-Semitic threat, including ones that probably are nothing of the sort. (I believe it contributed to the fuss over Venzuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez’s recent strange remarks about “Christ killers”; I recommend reading Arthur Waskow for the context of Chavez’s statement.)
A few weeks ago, one of New York’s PBS television affiliates broadcasted a documentary film on the late Simon Wiesenthal– the actual man– who died recently. Center planners practically had to twist his arm to lend his name to their institution. This fabled Nazi hunter was not the relentless seeker of Nazis under every bed that one might think.
The film indicates that Wiesenthal even defended the former UN Secretary-General and President of Austria, Kurt Waldheim, against the charges of the Wiesenthal Center and the World Jewish Congress that he had been a Nazi war criminal in Yugoslavia. (Waldheim did hide his war service as an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht, but Wiesenthal did not regard him as a true Nazi criminal.)