The United Nations International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust commemorates the Red Army's liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.
In the end, it was only the might of the Allied armed forces which ended the Holocaust in conjunction with the determination of Allied political leaders to defeat Nazi Germany and the sacrifices made on the respective home fronts.
The Soviet Union bore a terrible burden in the Second World War – a conflict it helped to ignite with its August 1939 pact with Germany on the eve of the German invasion of Poland. Twenty million Soviet citizens were killed or murdered and its leading cities were largely laid to ruin. The fierce resistance of Soviet armed forces in the immediate weeks after the German invasion – often surrounded and ill-equipped – saved the USSR from disintegration while Stalin and the Soviet leadership regained their equilibrium.
Then came the epochal battles over the next three years invoking Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad followed by vast engagements, often armored, over the expanses of European Russia as Soviet armed forces counterattacked across broad fronts to drive the Germans out of the USSR. Meanwhile, the “Holocaust by Bullets” commenced on Russian soil. (See, Desbois, Father Patrick. The Holocaust by Bullets. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.). The German Einsatzgruppen slaughtered over one million Jews by machine gun and rifle fire along with Russian Orthodox priests, Communist party officials, Russian prisoners of war and others.
The D-day invasion in June, 1944 opened the second front of the western allies and created one side of the giant pincer which closed when American and Soviet troops met at the Elbe in April, 1945. In this ten month period, the Americans, British and Canadians liberated the concentration camps of Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald among others finding a remnant of Jews, German political prisoners and nationals of other countries and slave laborers from throughout Europe. In the liberation of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek, the Soviets discovered the gas chambers and crematoria which the Germans had tried to destroy in their retreat from the Russian forces.
In the first part of 1945, the world from media reports began to learn of the Final Solution and the nearly successful destruction of European Jewish and Roma peoples along with homosexuals, German “undesirables” and other “inferior races.” As General Dwight Eisenhower declared after visiting Buchenwald:
“I have never felt able to describe my emotional reaction when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency...I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.”
The revelations of the Holocaust were seismic for the American Jewish community. To this day, a debate continues about the appropriateness and tenacity of the response of the leadership of the American Jewish community when unofficial word of the Nazi atrocities began to leak out of Europe reaching Britain and the United States in 1942. Preferring quiet engagement with a President and an executive branch considered sympathetic to Jewish concerns against a backdrop of polling levels showing high levels of multi-faceted, ingrained and potentially militant anti-Semitism, leadership more often than not through 1944 acceded to the Roosevelt administration's maxim that an expeditious defeat of Germany was the best way to help Europe's Jews. Anything that went counter to this approach was a hindrance to the war effort – a war derided by German propaganda and American anti-Semites as a “Jewish war.” The Roosevelt Administration and American Jewish leadership were sensitive to the provocation and power of this canard in a country where before World War II between one-third and one-half of the public believed the Jews had “too much power in the United States” (Wyman and Medoff, “A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust,” The New York Press, 2002; p. 2).
Some American Jews were not content to accept the logic of the Roosevelt Administration deference to military exigencies as Jews were being murdered – indeed not until the Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau threatened to go public with a white paper detailing State Department anti-Semitism and obstruction, was the War Refugee Board (WRB) organized. The unofficial mission of the WRB was to rescue European Jews. By the time the WRB was organized in 1944, the only Jewish community in occupied Europe not yet subject to deportation and extermination was the Hungarian community. (It was with the support of the WRB that Raoul Wallenberg embarked upon his famous mission to Budapest in 1944 and 1945. 2012 is the centennial of Wallenberg's birth on occasion which our community should celebrate and commemorate.)
One person who planted himself firmly outside of the camp of quiet, consensus-based diplomacy was Peter Bergson, née Hillel Kook, the twenty-something nephew of the Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine. The story is well chronicled in David Wyman and Rafael Medoff's book cited above. (The documentary “Not Idly By: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust” telling the story of Peter Bergson is also scheduled for release in 2012.) Working with playwright and journalist Ben Hecht (of “Front Page” fame), Bergson and his organization, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, aimed to shatter the quiescence of the Roosevelt Administration and the American Jewish community in connection with the reports of the slaughter of Jews seeping out of Europe.
Famously, Bergson and the Committee placed full page advertisements in newspapers such as The New York Times asking in large type-size: “How Well Are You Sleeping? Is There Something You Could have Done to Save Millions of Innocent People from Torture and Death?” and “Time Races Death: What Are We Waiting For?” Bergson's methods drew rebuke and repudiation from American Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen Wise and a tax investigation from the Bureau of Internal Revenue . (No evidence of tax malfeasance was found.). Bergson, though, enjoyed the support of people such as Senators Guy Gillette (Iowa) and Elbert Thomas (Utah). The shock of the Holocaust and the implicit realization that the more outspoken approach and tactics of Peter Bergson actually complemented the traditional approach of behind the scenes diplomacy was brought to life in the advocacy of the American Jewish community for Soviet Jews and Israel beginning in the 1960s.
In the circle of the contemporary chroniclers of the Holocaust there were those who were situated between the quiet and provocative approach. One monumental effort was the writing of “The Black Book: The Nazi Crime Against the Jewish People” by the World Jewish Congress (New York), Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (Moscow), Va'ad Leumi (pre-state Jewish community of Palestine) and American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists (New York). Published in 1946, but begun during the war, the book was an early attempt at comprehensively documenting the Nazi war against the Jews and Jewish resistance to the Nazis. The book contains a painstakingly constructed fold-out chart titled “Table of Anti-Jewish Legislation in Germany: 1933 -1943.” It is a reminder that the Nazi establishment used the trappings of legalism to remove Jews from German society; impoverish Jews; deport Jews and ultimately murder Jews. Leaving no stone unturned with respect to the persecution, the chart shows that Jews were forbidden to buy books in 1942 and denied protection of the courts in 1943, making Jews completely “fair game” for every conceivable degradation – a process which started with the promulgation of the Nuremberg laws in 1935. The inside cover of the dust jacket notes the manuscript was submitted to the United Nations War Crimes Commission for the first Nuremberg war crimes trial “as evidence of the crimes committed by the Nazis against the Jewish people.”