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Pointing Fingers and Awarding Holocaust Heroics—What’s the Big Deal?

I was struck last week by several Holocaust-related stories in the news, and specifically how they all have the typical tunnel vision we’ve come to expect from anything vaguely related to the Holocaust. 

The first covered a former suburban Cleveland automaker, who may be extradited to Germany to face charges of murder. German authorities claim John Demjanjuk, 88, was a guard in Sobibor, a concentration camp in Poland more than 60 years ago. Demjanjuk has already been extradited once, to Israel, when he was under suspicion of being the notorious Ivan the Terrible, a guard at Treblinka. Demjanjuk was convicted, but Israeli officials eventually received evidence that Ivan the Terrible was a different old Ukrainian guy, so Demjanjuk was released and returned to the US. Germany is hoping to have him in their custody within the next few months. Demjakjuk’s lawyer says his client cannot get up from a chair by himself, and John Demjanjuk Jr. says his father is “not in good health right now.”

In another story, we learned that the Vatican is continuing to restrict some archives having to do with Pope Pius XII, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, and who is often derided by various Jewish organizations for not doing enough to ensure the safety of Jews and Catholics during the Holocaust. A Vatican official recently said that Jewish archives should be opened before people get angry at the church for restricting access to its documents. Jewish groups responded by declaring that their archives are already open.

Finally, Yad Vashem is being asked to recognize the work of a man named Peter Bergson, who was a major player in all of the public work and activism done by American Jews during the Holocaust. Among other things, Bergson initiated a Rabbis’ March on the White House with more than 400 Orthodox rabbis. It was the only protest demonstration calling for Holocaust rescue activities ever held in Washington during World War II. Bergson was deeply involved in shaming the Roosevelt White House into creating the War Refugee Board, which helped save more than 200,000 lives during the final 18 months of World War II. Bergon’s family presented Yad Vashem with a petition signed by more than 100 public Jewish figures asking that the museum recognize Bergson in some way. Thus far the museum has refused.

All three of these stories demonstrate an intense connection and sensitivity to the Holocaust—and this intensity is baffling. Even in the best case scenario, the stakes in these cases are extraordinarily low. John Demjanjuk may be a bad guy, he may have done terrible things, but is there anything that can be done to him now that would be even remotely humane? The man cannot stand up. He is already a prisoner in his body. What is to be gained by extraditing him to Germany?  The Vatican’s finger pointing is embarrassing, but regardless, what’s the advantage of knowing just how much Pope Pius didn’t do to save more people?  And Peter Bergson was no doubt a remarkable man who did exemplary things, but does that mean Yad Vashem should be pressured into honoring him? The world has real problems right now—Darfur, the rising cost of food, global warming—and I don’t see any benefit in constantly focusing time, money, and energy on minor issues just because they are tangentially related to the Holocaust. ‘Never again’ means we have to be vigilant about our behavior and advocacy in the present.  It doesn’t mean investing all of our resources in digging up the past.

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