JBuzz Op-ed May 21, 2012: Dovid Katz: An Open Letter to Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder

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An Open Letter to Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder

Source: Algemeiner, 5-21-12

Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale University, the author of the famous (and controversial) book “Bloodlands” was brought to Lithuania last week for a symposium on the Holocaust attended also by the director of YIVO in New York. In the course of the same week, the Lithuanian government repatriated, reburied with full honors and held a series of events honoring the 1941 Nazi-puppet prime minister who signed off on the German order for all Jews in Kaunas (Kovno) to be forced into a ghetto.

Dear Tim,

Greetings, and sorry we missed each other in Vilnius this time. I write in the context of our ongoing and respectful conversation, which started in the Guardian (thanks to Matt Seaton, and prominently including Efraim Zuroff) back in 2010 (I, II, III, IV); continuing through our meeting at Yale, the Aftermath Conference in Melbourne, Australia, in 2011 (thanks to Mark Baker, and with participation of Jan Gross and Patrick Desbois), and more recently, via my review of your book Bloodlands (along with Alexander Prusin’s The Lands Between), in East European Jewish Affairs.

In that review, I dealt with a number of areas of disagreement that are on the table concerning the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and the efforts underway to use state funds to downgrade it in a number of countries, particularly the Baltics.

But these debates are inherently separate from the troubling issue on which I’m addressing you today: the ongoing instrumentalization and abuse of your important work by well-oiled government-financed ultra-nationalist and often antisemitic forces in Eastern Europe who have (wrongly) found in your work the ammunition for a discernible slide in the direction of the Double Genocide movement, which reached its zenith with the 2008 Prague Declaration (critiques here), and in the direction of positing the sort of “complexity” that is regularly invoked, particularly here in the Baltics, as euphemism for what is now called Holocaust Obfuscation.

There is, alas, in nationalist and antisemitic circles in some East European states a movement to sanitize or actually glorify local Holocaust collaborators and perpetrators (who were after all, usually quite reliably “anti-Soviet” and “anti-Russian”). In Lithuania alone, this effort has gone hand in hand with a tragic effort to concurrently blame the victims by trying to criminalize, in the absence of any evidence, Holocaust survivors who are alive because they joined the anti-Nazi resistance. Not one of these kangaroo cases has yet led to a public apology, not even to 90 year old Dr. Rachel Margolis in Rechovot, who still dreams of one last visit to her native Vilna.

As reported in DefendingHistory.com last September, a foreign-ministry hosted event in Vilnius in September 2011 included a speech by a leading local historian in which he claimed (wrongly) that your book offers support for the condemnation of Jewish partisans who fought against the Nazis. In May 2011, a historian speaking on Lithuanian radio boasted that “It’s not all hopeless” because of Bloodlands.

Even before that, in late 2010, a far-right film production cited you as an expert consultant in a project to glorify the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) perpetrators who unleashed murder and mutilation of Jewish civilians in dozens of Lithuanian towns before the Nazis even arrived (and who announced their intentions before the war even started). (I trust you withdrew from that project, and offer my belated congratulations for so doing).

But that episode somehow connects with this week. The same ultranationalist filmmakers recently announced their premiere on Sunday 20 May 2012 in Kaunas of a new “documentary” (promo clip here) adulating Juozas Ambrazevičius (later Brazaitis), the 1941 Nazi puppet “prime minister” in Kaunas who signed off on orders for the setting up of a concentration camp for Jews, and the requirement that “all the Jews of Kaunas” be moved within four weeks to a ghetto.

The new film premiered yesterday in Kaunas as the grand finale of four days of Lithuanian government financed events (May 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th) focused on the reburial with full honors and the elaborate honoring of the World War II Nazi puppet prime minister.

What do these events have to do with you, or with the director of Yivo from New York who joined you? Directly speaking – absolutely nothing. In fact, people in the Jewish community here in Vilnius feel certain that when you (and he) accepted the invitations for the May 2012 symposium and related events here in Lithuania that you had no idea your presence would coincide with the long-planned glorification of a major Holocaust collaborator.

But when such things happen, it becomes necessary to react, if not by postponing one’s trip then by speaking out unambiguously with moral clarity.

Events featuring a Yale historian and the head of Yivo, coming at the same time as the state-sponsored events to honor the collaborator, have been used, first:  to deflect foreign and diplomatic attention from the Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis outrage, which has drawn protests this past week from B’nai B’rith, the Wiesenthal Center, an international petition, and critically, the remnant Jewish Community of Lithuania; second: to use your appearance to legitimize those events. After all, if a Yale professor and the head of Yivo are happy to appear the same week about the Holocaust and not come out publicly and firmly against the concurrent glorification of the collaborator, well, then it can’t be such a big deal…

It was sad that neither of you publicly condemned the Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis events during your symposium on the Holocaust in Lithuania. However, it did come up in an interviewer’s question to yourself.

According to the interview published on 15min.lt on 18 May 2012 (and for the sake of the Almighty, please do tell us if they misquoted you), your answer to the question about the repatriation, honoring and reburial of the Nazi puppet prime minister underway during your visit was as follows:

“I am going to choose my words very carefully here. I think before you rebury anyone, you should think very very hard and probably wait a very very long time because once you rebury somebody once, you can’t rebury them again.”
Is that really all you have to say to Lithuanian society, during your visit here, regarding the latest in a litany of government sponsored events to honor collaborators and perpetrators of the Lithuanian Holocaust and not seldom to use your own name and book as artillery?

During this past week, very courageous Lithuanian citizens (who remain here and may even have to face this or that consequence in their careers) have raised their proud voices in dignified protest. They include the members of parliament Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis and Algirdas Sysas; member of the European Parliament Leonidas Donskis; political scientist  Darius Udrys; former editor of the Jewish newspaper here, Milan Chersonski; dozens of Lithuanian citizens who have signed Krystyna Anna Steiger’s petition; and, not least, the small remnant Jewish community itself, which issued a bold statement in partnership with the Jewish museum.

As a famous professor soon returning to Yale, would it be too much respectfully to ask you to reconsider your public reaction to the week’s events. You can phrase this much more eloquently and elegantly. Here is just a first thought:

“There are certainly many historical complexities, but as a true friend of Lithuania, I have to tell you frankly that state financing of the honoring of a Nazi-puppet prime minister on whose watch the mass murder of Lithuanian Jewry got underway, one who actually signed orders separating out for persecution and worse those citizens who were Jewish, is the worst possible message your government could be sending. It is a tragic mistake, and if I had known it would coincide with my visit, I would have asked to come some other week out of respect for the victims of the Holocaust. As someone who passionately shares your cause of educating the West about Stalinist crimes, I have to tell you that this sort of thing undermines that noble effort through and through.”

Wishing you, as ever, the best of everything,

Dovid

Dovid Katz was visiting professor in Judaic studies at Yale in 1989-1999. From 1999 to 2010 he was professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at Vilnius University, Lithuania. He is based in Vilnius, where he edits wwwDefendingHistory.com. His personal website is http://www.dovidkatz.net.

Hitler and Stalin The Q&A: Timothy Snyder, historian

Hitler and Stalin The Q&A: Timothy Snyder, historian

Source: The Economist, 6-3-11

SOME topics are so dark that even scholars feel intimidated. Yet Timothy Snyder is not so easily daunted. A professor of Eastern European history at Yale, his most recent book, “Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin“, examines some of the most devastating collective memories of the modern world. With scholarly rigour and engaging prose, he seeks to explain both the causes and effects of the two most haunting mass murderers of the 20th century. The “bloodlands” of the title describes the area where the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered 14m civilians. The Economist has praised the book for being a “revisionist history of the best kind”, one that “makes the reader rethink some of the best-known episodes in Europe’s modern history.”

The book has been controversial among some Holocaust scholars, many of whom argued that Mr Snyder does a disservice by comparing the crimes of the Nazis with those of the Soviet Union (something Mr Snyder discussed in an interview with The Economist when the book first came out last year).

Mr Snyder was recently in Poland to promote a Polish-language edition of his book. This month his tour will take him to the Netherlands, England, Australia and Israel. In a conversation with More Intelligent Life, Mr Snyder talked about his approach to the book, which is meant to clarify some common misunderstandings about the second world war.

What are some of the most common misconceptions of the history of the so-called “bloodlands”?

The first is that there’s something that people think they understand and it turns out that they don’t, and that thing is the Holocaust. The reality of it is, if anything, worse than they think, much more face-to-face, much more barbaric, much more unforgettable. People think that the Holocaust is something that happened in Germany, generally to German Jews. They think it’s something that happened only in Auschwitz. They generally don’t know about any of the other death facilities besides Auschwitz; they generally don’t know that half of the Jews who were killed were shot rather than gassed.

Hitler and Stalin killed virtually in the same place, and that is Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, the Baltic states, western Russia. The Holocaust happened in a place where millions and millions of people have just been killed due to the Soviet policies.

And the third thing I would point to is the habit of reduction. For example an approach saying: it must have all been the Germans, or it must have all been the Soviets. Both of these systems brought tremendous death and suffering. If you want to avoid criticism then you shouldn’t be a historian, because historians are trying to understand and explain. If you’re trying to please people then you should go into the fashion business, or the candy business.

You’ve lived in Eastern Europe for a while, and you have learned the languages spoken in the ‘bloodlands’.  Would you say it’s much harder, or even impossible, to get to certain information if you don’t speak the local language? 

The question of languages is very important. If you don’t know Russian, you don’t really know what you’re missing. Imagine that you’re in a huge country house and you have keys, but your keys only open some of the rooms. You only know the part of the house that you can wander in. And you can persuade yourself that that’s the whole house, but it’s not. We can only see as much, and we can only go as far as our languages take us. I wrote this book in English, but there are very important conversations that are happening in German, Russian, Polish and so on among those historians, and the book is addressed to all of them.

At a lecture at the Kosciuszko Foundation a few months ago, you said that your goal is not to compare the crimes of Hitler and Stalin. But how does one write about the casualties caused by both without forcing the reader to compare? How do you resist the urge to draw clear comparisons while writing such a book?

It’s not that I’m against comparisons per se. On the contrary, I think a comparison is totally natural. It’s just that if you want to compare you have to know what it is you’re comparing. People often generate these comparisons thinking: ‘I already know about the Nazis’ or ‘I already know about the Soviets. Therefore, I know that the Nazis were worse.’ Often they don’t know a lot about the other side of the conflict. I like to think that people will read this book and then be able to make better comparisons.

Westerners tend to know the history of Nazi Germany better than the history of the Soviet Union. Why is that? Is there more literature about the Nazi crimes than the Soviet ones in English?

Something interesting happened when the cold war ended: the US stopped being so concerned about the Soviet Union. Our teachers and professors strive desperately to save something from the 20th century, and that something is the Holocaust. It’s been happening since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Part of this has to do with an issue of identification. People in the West tend to identify with western victims. So even when they think about the Holocaust, they really think about the German or French victims, they’re not thinking about the Polish, Hungarian or Soviet victims. And when they think about the German crimes, they’re not thinking about the starvation of Soviet prisoners of war, which also killed 3m people; they’re not thinking about the partisan campaigns in Belarus, which no one has ever heard of, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. They’re thinking of the people they can identify with—nice, middle class, western-looking people. So it’s not that people only know about the Holocaust. It’s just that they have this very western idea of the whole tragedy. What I try to do in my book is to make the Holocaust more ‘eastern’, which it was.

How did you pick the individual, personal stories that are included in the book? They are effective in giving names and faces to the otherwise inconceivable numbers of casualties.

It was important to me that a book that was mainly about a tragedy on a tremendous scale be comprehensible. I did my best to explain the policies, but also to make sure the readers understood that the victims were human beings. That’s why I have the material about these individuals. It’s about life and death, and life is made of individual human beings. And the significance of death is that it ends a life.

Writing a book like this you don’t want to seem too mechanical, but you also don’t want to be sentimental, and say that only because they died all these people were good. That’s not the point. I was trying to make these people real. And if you make them ideal, they’re not real.

“Shoah” and a new view of history; Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin”

Look Again “Shoah” and a new view of history.

Source: David Denby, The New Yorker, January 10, 2011

Claude Lanzmann

Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary on the Holocaust is being re-released.

Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” the shattering nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, which was first shown in New York in 1985, has, on its twenty-fifth anniversary, reopened here and will soon appear in museums, universities, and select theatres across the country. Back in 1985, the film left me bruised and sore, moved by its clarifying passions and its electrifying rhetoric, and amazed by its revolutionary form. Lanzmann, a French filmmaker and intellectual journalist, omitted photographs, newsreels, and documents (all the usual historical materials), and, instead, reconstructed the past from what remained of it in the present. He used the testimony of three groups of people: survivors of the death camps in Poland, most of them Jews who worked for the Nazis and either escaped or outlived the camps at the end of the war; Nazi guards and functionaries; and Polish witnesses, some of them farmers living near the camps who respond to memory with a bemused shrug and a few smiles, others villagers who make typical anti-Semitic remarks. And Lanzmann filmed, with obsessive precision and poetic eloquence, the physical remnants, the trains, tracks, and roads that conveyed prisoners to Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau—camps that the Poles left standing, half as memorial sites and half as cursed and loathsome wastelands, and whose environs and interiors he crosses and crisscrosses. All this was fascinating, but I wondered whether seeing “Shoah” again could teach audiences anything new. And was there not a possible moral danger in fascination—the habit of returning to the Jewish catastrophe over and over for an emotional workout without receiving further illumination from it?

There is, however, a startling new interpretation of the period which makes another viewing of “Shoah” necessary not as an immersion in sorrows but as a fresh experience. A few months ago, Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, brought out a stunning book called “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (Basic; $29.95), which chronicles not just the Holocaust but also the many mass killings perpetrated during the years 1933 to 1945 by both the Nazis and the Soviets, especially in eastern Poland, the Baltic states, and areas nominally within the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and Belarus. Parts or all of this vast territory were stormed by armies and occupied no less than three times: first, by the Red Army, after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 in effect ceded eastern Poland and the Baltic states to the Soviet Union; then, beginning in June, 1941, by the German attack on the same lands, an assault by three million men which subsequently advanced deep into the Soviet Union; and then, of course, by the Soviet counterattack and “liberation,” which expelled the Germans from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945. Each army was accompanied by killing units: the Nazis by S.S. death squads, German “security police,” and local thugs who were recruited, or intimidated, into doing their part; the Soviets by the secret police—the N.K.V.D.—which, in 1939 (and after), continued the mass exterminations begun on Stalin’s orders in the early thirties, when five and a half million people, most of them in Ukraine, were starved to death. In all, from 1933 to 1945, fourteen million noncombatants died in what Snyder calls the “bloodlands.”…READ MORE

Timothy Snyder: “Bloodlands” Named Best History Book of 2010 & Jewish Journal Review

Source: Jonathan Kirsch, The Jewish Journal, 12-31-10

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Timothy Snyder‘s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin has been named best history book of 2010 by The Atlantic, The Economist, The Financial Times, History Today, The Independent, The New Republic, The New Statesman, The Seattle Times, The Telegraph, The Forward, and Reason Magazine.

I’ve been running a Polish film festival in miniature at my house with a series of war movies by Andrzej Wajda, including “A Generation,” “Kanal,” “Ashes and Diamonds” and “Katyn.”  As a Polish film historian observes on the commentary track, these are movies that only a Polish director could make — and only a Polish audience can fully appreciate — if only because the blood-soaked soil of Poland was, in a real sense, the ground zero of World War II.

That observation came to mind as I read Yale history professor Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (Basic Books: $29.95), a brilliant, important and highly original look at a swath of territory that includes not only Poland but also Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states. As Americans, we may be stirred by heroic memories of Guadalcanal and Normandy, but in terms of sheer brutality and carnage, they cannot be compared to what happened in central and eastern Europe. And, as Snyder insists on pointing out, the tragedy was not limited to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

To be sure, the concentration camps and killing fields of the Holocaust were located in what Snyder calls the bloodlands, but he seeks to make a different and larger point.  Between 1933 and 1945, the death toll in the bloodlands reached a total of some 14 million souls.  “Yet not a single one of the fourteen million murdered was a soldier on active duty,” he writes. “Most were women, children and the aged; none were bearing weapons; many had been stripped of their possessions, including their clothes.”…READ MORE