Yad Vashem; A Peek Behind the Mystique

Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum lost some of its hallowed aura last week when it emerged that an Israeli-Polish declaration on Poland’s amended Holocaust law— which the museum had harshly condemned—was approved by none other than Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Prof. Dina Porat.

The discovery triggered internal turmoil in the museum’s hierarchy, with its senior academic advisor Prof. Yehuda Bauer castigating the falsifications in the document that “hurt the Jewish people,” and Prof. Porat asking Bauer to rescind his statement. When Bauer refused to back down, Porat offered to resign.

The government apparently needed a sacrificial lamb to quell the uproar over the widely repudiated declaration, and Porat, who has held her post since 2011, was the obvious choice.

The world-renowned museum had slammed the Israeli-Polish joint statement as a betrayal of Holocaust memory. In a statement, Yad Vashem singled out the assertions that the Polish underground and government-in-exile had aided and supported Polish Jews facing death at the hands of the Nazis.

“At no time did the Polish government-in-exile based in London work decisively during the war on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens,” charged Yad Vashem. On the contrary, “much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help Jews, but was also frequently actively involved in persecuting them.”

Bauer, Israel’s leading Holocaust scholar, excoriated Prime Minister Netanyahu for allowing “transient interests like trade relations” with Poland to supersede “the moral duty” of guarding the truth of the Holocaust.

In a radio interview, Bauer said government backtracking on its opposition to the law and the signing of a joint statement with Poland was “a very big mistake;” that Israel had “legitimized…a completely mendacious story.”

 

Diplomatic Peace at a Heavy Price

The joint declaration was designed to end the diplomatic standoff between the two countries over a law passed in Poland’s parliament in February that criminalized blaming the Polish nation for collaboration with the Nazis.

Israel and the United States protested the law and after extensive negotiations, Poland’s far-right government subsequently amended it. The new version removes the three-year prison sentence prescribed in the original legislation but leaves intact the prohibition against blaming Poles for complicity in the Holocaust, as well as the possibility of punitive measures for those who violate the law.

When Prof. Porat’s involvement in the committee that drafted the declaration came to light, Yad Vashem immediately distanced itself from her, issuing a statement that Porat had not been representing the Holocaust institution.

As outrage and condemnation continued to boil over, Porat defended her involvement. She told reporters she had been able “to minimize the damage” in the original legislation. She acknowledged she would like to “fix some things” with the declaration but overall, she “could live it.”

Bauer however, continued in an op-ed a day later to ridicule that position, saying the Poles “cheated us, twisted us around their finger and we agreed to it because to the State of Israel, economic, security and political ties are more important than a little matter like the Holocaust.”

Bauer publicly took a swipe at his younger colleague for not consulting with him. “Prof. Porat did not turn to me or talk to me about the subject, so I can’t speak to her motives,” he sniffed, apparently piqued at having been sidestepped.

 

Public Relations Disaster

Porat’s acceptance of the Polish narrative caused Yad Vashem embarrassment from another angle—its enthusiastic celebration of the work of Polish-born historian Jan Grabowski, author of the groundbreaking “Hunt for the Jews: Murder and Betrayal of the Jews in Poland.”

Yad Vashem in 2014 awarded Grabowski the prestigious International Prize for Holocaust Research for his work.

Hunt for the Jews refers to the German word Judenjagd; the murderous search for Jews who succeeded in escaping from the ghettos and death trains, and sought help from their Polish neighbors in Nazi-occupied Poland. The book draws on archived materials from Polish, Jewish and German sources, and focuses on the fates of scores of individual Jews.

Grabowski has frequently disputed the Polish government’s current claim that many Poles helped Jews and those who collaborated with the Nazis were “criminals” from the margins of society.

“Those who collaborated were sometimes criminals but very often solid citizens,” Grabowski said while in Israel recently. “These people saw harming Jews as a patriotic activity. Once they finished robbing and murdering the Jews they resumed their standing as good citizens, without anyone reproaching them for their crimes.”

The Polish “Blue Police,” who served the Germans as an auxiliary armed force in hunting down thousands of Jews, were culled from the ranks of grassroots Poles, the historian added.

Grabowski’s book was first published in Poland in 2011 and translated into English two years later. In 2015, a revised and expanded edition, in Hebrew translation, was published by Yad Vashem.

Against the backdrop of Yad Vashem’s embrace of Grabowski’s scholarship, its chief historian’s endorsement of a Polish narrative that utterly negated Grabowski’s findings was a public relations disaster for the museum.

 

Selective Truth-Telling At Yad Vashem?

The museum’s outrage and unprecedented rebuke of the government has prompted a closer look at some of its own controversial past and present policies.

For an institution that prizes its mandate to safeguard the truth and memory of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem has surprisingly ignored some true heroes of the Holocaust. It has also reversed its stance on individuals of negative repute and recasted them as “heroes.”

Behind this selective historiography invariably stands Yad Vashem’s esteemed Prof. Bauer, projecting an aura of supreme rectitude as he clouds or subverts the facts in favor of the establishment position.

In one of the most striking examples of this selective truth-telling, Prof. Bauer is known for defending Yad Vashem’s recent decision to “end the vilification of Rudolph Kastner,” a Hungarian Zionist leader reviled in many quarters for facilitating the deportation of 437,000 Jews to the death factories in negotiations with Adolf Eichmann.

Yad Vashem recently received from Kastner’s daughter a gift of his papers. In the wake of Ms. Kastner’s relentless campaign to rehabilitate her father’s reputation, backed by politicians in the Yesh Atid party, the museum has since created an exhibit that glorifies Kastner’s “rescue work” as a Zionist leader.

Historians have long held that Kastner, who admitted to knowing the dreadful fate awaiting the deportees, withheld this knowledge from his fellow Jews, even misleading them into believing they would be “resettled” in another region of Hungary so they would submit to deportation.

In exchange for Kastner’s silence and millions of dollars in cash and jewels (paid for in large measure by Hungary’s Orthodox community), Eichmann promised the release to freedom of about 1650 Jews, hand-picked by Kastner. This group included his family, relatives and friends, prominent Zionists, and some religious leaders including the Satmar Rebbe.

Kastner shielded some of the worst Nazi fiends from justice after the war, writing letters to Allied authorities testifying that they had helped save Jews and were deserving of leniency.

Responding to bitter recriminations that more could have been done to alert Hungarian Jews to the fate awaiting them once they were deported, Bauer insists that the masses would not have believed it and even if people did resist, it would have made no difference. The Nazis would have perpetrated one massacre after another. The end would have been the same.

 

Many historians vehemently disagree.

Kastner was just entering into complex negotiations with Eichmann when on April 7, 1944 a 19-year old Slovakian Jew, Rudolf Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg), and a fellow prisoner, Alfred Wetzler, 26, succeeded in miraculously escaping from Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Both men had observed the massive preparations underway at Birkenau for the annihilation of Europe’s last remaining Jewish community, the 800,000 Jews of Hungary. After an 11-day trek of 85 miles on foot, hiding by day and traveling at night, the two escapees made their way back to Slovakia/Bratislava. There they sought out the Jewish Council (Judenrat) to warn of the impending disaster awaiting Hungarian Jewry.

In the presence of 12 members of the Jewish Council, an exhausted Vrba and Wetzler began describing the demonic world of Auschwitz, its murder apparatus and the staggering number of victims.

The truth about Auschwitz had been a tightly guarded secret until then, a secret reinforced by 6,000 SS personnel, 200 vicious dogs and two perimeters of barbed wire surrounding the death camp.

The Vrba-Wetzler report was shockingly detailed and graphic, complete with maps of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex and its crematoria. It was the first document about the Auschwitz death camp to reach the free world and to be accepted as authentic, not the product of hysteria or insanity. It shattered the skepticism and apathy that had existed up to that point about Hitler’s Final Solution.

 

Catastrophe

Although their terrifying report was in the hands of Hungarian Jewish leaders by April 28 or early May 1944, the information it contained never reached the victims. During May and June 1944, about 437,000 Hungarian Jews were savagely packed into suffocating “resettlement” trains and shipped to Auschwitz, where most of them were gassed on arrival.

Vrba, who survived the war and emigrated first to Israel and then to Canada, published his autobiography in England nearly forty years ago. In it he maintains that a copy of his and Wetzler’s report—later termed the Auschwitz Protocols—was hand-delivered to Rudolph Kastner at the end of April when he visited Bratislava.

By then, Kastner and his colleagues in the Zionist leadership in Hungary were already invested in their rescue negotiations with Eichmann. They therefore gave no publicity whatsoever to the facts about Auschwitz now in their possession.

To the end of his life, Vrba remained convinced that had the information he and Wetzler brought to Bratislava at the risk of their lives immediately circulated throughout Hungary, it would have galvanized many of the nearly half million Jews who were slated for deportation to resist , flee, hide their children or otherwise obstruct their deportation.

The Vrba-Wetzler report was translated from Slovakian into Hungarian, German, Yiddish and English and smuggled out to numerous contacts in several countries. As the media picked up the story, first in Switzerland and then in Britain and the United States, it sent shock waves across the free world.

Harsh condemnation of the Hungarian government by the United States and England, a bombing operation over Hungary, as well as threats to hold Hungary’s leaders morally accountable for the destruction of its Jews, finally induced Hungarian Regent Horthy to halt the deportations.

Precious time had been squandered by the weeks of delay until the report was distributed. By then, close to half a million Hungarian Jews had been murdered. Although subsequent death marches and savage attacks by Hungarian soldiers took the lives of thousands more, the majority of Budapest’s Jews—from 150,000 to 200,000 – were saved.

In the post-war years, Zionist leaders who survived and went on to hold government positions in the newly established state of Israel, defended Kastner’s decision to delay the publication of the Vrba-Wetzler report until the Kastner Train was safely on it way. By that time, Hungarian Jews were being gassed at Auschwitz at the rate of 8,000 a day.

These leaders argued there was no possibility of resistance in the face of the Nazis’ military might. Leading historians in Israel, with Bauer at their head, all echo this establishment view.

In Secrets of the Dead, a documentary about Vrba’s escape, Bauer defends the Jewish Councils of Slovakia and Hungary. “Resistance was futile,” insisted Bauer. “There was absolutely nothing, nothing whatsoever that anyone could do.”

In his memoirs, including an autobiographical account, I Cannot Forgive, and interviews and lectures about the Holocaust, Vrba for rest of his life continued to maintain otherwise.

“If instead of herding people like pigs to a slaughterhouse, the Nazis would have been forced to hunt them down one at a time like deer, the death machinery would have slowed down,” he insisted. Vrba wrote that the Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia and Hungary trusted the Zionist leadership empowered by the Nazis to represent them, and this trust often led them to their deaths.

 

Heroes Expunged From History

Vrba’s and Wetzler’s story has been carefully kept from Israel’s Hebrew-reading public and appears nowhere in any of the history texts that comprise Israeli school curricula.

Until recently, Yad Vashem’s massive library contained no Hebrew version of the seminal Vrba-Wetzler report. Copies were available only in English and Hungarian.

When asked by Prof. Ruth Linn of Haifa University why this momentous document had not been translated into Hebrew, the response from the museum was, “We have no funding for it. We can’t publish every single thing out there on the Holocaust.”

Linn, grew up in Israel knowing of Auschwitz but never having heard of an escape from the death camp, much less the earth-shattering Auschwitz Protocols. She was shocked to learn of this history from the 1985 sprawling documentary, Shoah, by French film-maker Claude Lanzsman.

The centerpiece of Shoah, which consists entirely of witness testimony from Holocaust survivors, bystanders and perpetrators, was Vrba’s riveting testimonial about his harrowing two years in Auschwitz, his escape with Wetzler and their subsequent authorship of the searing Auschwitz Protocols.

In her book about Vrba, Linn questioned why these heroes have been excluded from Israeli Holocaust “historiography” and why he was not asked to testify at the 1961 Eichmann trial.

Although Vrba gave crucial eyewitness testimony at Nazi war crimes trials in Germany leading to convictions of senior war criminals, the government of Israel refused to pay for his travel fare to Israel to testify against Eichmann. (A sworn affidavit would suffice, he was told.)

In 1998 Linn arranged for publication of the first Hebrew edition of Vrba’s memoirs. In her own book, Escaping Auschwitz, she probes Vrba’s strange disappearance from the Israeli Holocaust narrative, charging that Israeli Holocaust history has ignobly followed the spirit of the court’s policy at the Eichmann trial: “silencing and muting questions about the role of the Jewish Council in the deportations of hundreds of thousands of fellow Jews.”

Her book exposes how, in light of Vrba’s scathing critique of Zionist leaders, those in charge of the official Israeli history of the Holocaust have for decades sought to suppress his story.

In addition to deleting Vrba and Wetzler from Holocaust history, Yad Vashem, backed by its preeminent historian Prof. Bauer, had, till very recently, expunged from the record all mention of Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), an extraordinary activist who broke the wall of silence in the United States about Hitler’s atrocities.

Bergson was responsible for rallying support in Congress for the establishment of the 1944 War Refugee Board that ultimately saved 200,000 Budapest Jews from annihilation. But with his flamboyant campaign to stir America’s conscience, Bergson made mortal enemies of an American Jewish establishment that was too timid to kick up a storm.

Bauer defended Bergson’s exclusion from the record in Yad Vashem, echoing the establishment line that “Bergson’s efforts amounted to nothing.”

 

Back-Tracking on FDR

Bauer has recently executed a flip flop on FDR, claiming new evidence shows that Roosevelt was not guilty of abandoning Europe’s Jews (as history attests) because there was nothing America could do to help the Jews short of defeating Nazi Germany.

Studies of the period show the annihilation of Europe’s Jews left Roosevelt unmoved. He took no steps toward rescue until the very end of the war when forced by political pressure to create a War Refugee Board. The agency remained grossly underfunded and understaffed until the end of the war.

Bauer in the 1980s wrote highly critically and disparagingly of Roosevelt. Yet, in line with a new exhibit favorable to FDR at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, Bauer defended his recent reversal on the subject.

If he did not change course “after 44 years of study, research and discover of new evidence,” he said, “I would have been fired from [Hebrew] University.”

Is it truly “new evidence” that has inspired these u-turns, or changing political trends that demand a corresponding shift in the Holocaust narrative?

How sacred is Holocaust memory to this historian who castigated Prime Minister Netanyahu for betraying Holocaust survivors if he, too, can bend the truth in order to stay in tune with the current zeitgeist?