What were totally forgotten or ignored by all the speakers were two topics that can best be described as the “unfinished business of the Holocaust.”
After listening carefully to almost all of the speeches by the Israeli and foreign dignitaries who participated in the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, I was struck by something that apparently eluded all the speakers and commentators. As expected, every speech focused not only on the past, and the obligation to remember the events of the Holocaust, but also related to the future and the urgency of the fight against the current upsurge of antisemitism in Europe and the United States. Needless to say, this was only natural in an event convened to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the largest and most lethal death camp.
The working assumption behind this link is the hypothesis that the more people will learn about the Holocaust, the less likely they are to harbor prejudices, let alone commit antisemitic or racist or xenophobic crimes. In fact, listening to the way many of the speakers related to Holocaust education it seems as if they considered it almost a miracle elixir or drug that has the power to effectively immunize all human beings against any and all prejudices.
But the problem is, however, that while Holocaust education is undoubtedly an important component in the arsenal of tools that exist to assist in this effort, it is not a miracle drug and cannot immunize all persons everywhere against hatred.
What were totally forgotten or ignored by all the speakers were two topics that can best be described as the “unfinished business of the Holocaust.” I am referring specifically to the issues of justice and restitution, which are neither identical nor equivalent, but have two important similarities. In both cases, there have been highly significant partial successes, but much more could and should have been done, which has not yet been done. Both are still continuing but the chances of any additional major successes are almost non-existent as far as justice is concerned, and only slightly better in terms of restitution.
I mention these two issues because they have a direct impact on future efforts to defeat antisemitism, and are part of the problems we continue to face in this regard. Justice is a genuine deterrent to crime and had more of the perpetrators of Holocaust crimes been punished, it’s likely that antisemitic crimes would not be as prevalent as they are today. The same can be said as regards restitution. The more property returned to Jews, the stronger the warning against harming Jews – since in both cases the root of these crimes is antisemitism.
I am certain that many of the leaders who ignored these issues would dismiss this argument by pointing to the passage of so many years since the crimes were committed, but the passage of time in no way diminishes the crimes of yesteryear, and the guilt of those who murdered and robbed. The problem is that it is always easier to stick to virtually meaningless platitudes about memory and remembrance rather than pledge to tackle unpopular problems which obligate difficult practical solutions. So of course remembering the Shoah and Holocaust education are important and beneficial, but they have to be accompanied by legal measures against antisemitic crimes and the determination that the perpetrators of such crimes will never benefit from them.
The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the center’s Israel office and Eastern European affairs. His most recent book, together with Ruta Vanagaite, Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust, will be published by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers next month.