Israel’s national Holocaust memorial must explain how it allowed several video clips that were widely panned for promoting a revisionist narrative of World War II to be screened at last month’s event marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, several prominent Holocaust scholars and activists told The Times of Israel.
Yad Vashem apologized Monday for “inaccuracies” and “partial” facts presented at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, after being criticized for overly emphasizing Russia’s role in ending the war and avoiding information Moscow finds unpalatable. However, the institution is refusing to explain precisely who produced the videos or what procedures were followed to vet their content — information that critics said is crucial to restoring the institution’s reputation.
“This is what happens when you use history to achieve political purposes,” said Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, whose court battle against Holocaust denier David Irving was turned into a major Hollywood film in 2016.
“I am absolutely heartbroken that Yad Vashem, which has such a stellar reputation and stayed above the political fray, should have become part of this politicization of history,” she lamented. “The potential damage to Yad Vashem’s reputation is immense and it’s just wrong” that this was allowed to happen.
“One would hope that they would be more transparent so something like this will never happen again. The Shoah itself is so significant, the tragedy inherent in it is so immense, the pain of the victims and of the survivors is so great, that to use this as a political weapon is just a desecration of all the Shoah represents.”
“We don’t know exactly what happened behind the scenes, but it is clear that this was a highly political and politicized event.” said Izabella Tabarovsky, a scholar with the Kennan Institute who focuses on the politics of memory and the Holocaust.
“It is unfortunate that in the end it was Yad Vashem’s reputation that got put on the line. I know many scholars at Yad Vashem and the excellent work that they do, so my own faith in Yad Vashem’s credibility is not diminished.”
The videos presented at the ceremony — which was attended by dozens of world leaders, among them Russian President Vladimir Putin — focused almost exclusively on the Soviet Union’s role in defeating the Nazis, while downplaying the role of America, Britain, and other countries. They also failed to mention Joseph Stalin’s deal with Adolf Hitler in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact that preceded the war, Russia’s occupation of parts of Poland, and other facts uncomfortable for Moscow.
“Unfortunately, the short films that accompanied the event, and especially the film that was meant briefly to present the key points of World War II and the Holocaust, included a number of inaccuracies that resulted in a partial and unbalanced presentation of the historical facts,” Prof. Dan Michman, the head of the Yad Vashem International Institute of Holocaust Research, wrote in a statement on the memorial’s website.
“We apologize for the unfortunate errors in these short films, which do not represent Yad Vashem’s approach to the historical issues portrayed.”
“Yad Vashem’s distortion of history relating to the role of the Soviet Union during the 75th Commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz is regrettable,” said former Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman. “There needs to be some explanation as to how and why it occurred. This, added to the apology, will restore Yad Vashem’s credibility.”
Asked if the videos in question had been produced by Yad Vashem itself or by an outside partner, a spokesman for the memorial told The Times of Israel that both “the videos and the event were organized by the World Holocaust Forum in cooperation with Yad Vashem.” Yad Vashem would not comment on whether the films were vetted by in-house historians or if any oversight mechanisms were in place to examine their content before they were screened.
The World Holocaust Forum is an organization run by Moshe Kantor, a London-based Russian oligarch who is reputed to be close to Putin and who also heads the European Jewish Congress. A spokeswoman for Kantor did not respond to requests for comment.
Yad Vashem chief historian Dina Porat, who also heads the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University, which is funded by Moshe Kantor, did not respond to requests for clarification regarding whether the memorial’s scholars had any role in vetting the videos.
But several sources expressed the opinion to The Times of Israel on Tuesday that Yad Vashem historians were likely not consulted on the videos.
“Scholars (fully or partially) within Yad Vashem were surprised by these most problematic films and felt that something must be said,” said Havi Dreifuss, a historian of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe at Tel Aviv University and director of Yad Vashem’s Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland.
“Some of us thought that a statement which was much more explicit should have been made. Not only in order to apologize (which surely should be done) but also in order to provide a historical explanation of what was misrepresented and what should have been shown in those movies. As historians committed to history we could be and should be much more precise.”
Asked if Yad Vashem had consulted any of its scholars before running the films, Dreifuss said that as a part-time scholar at Yad Vashem she was unaware of them and only knew that “many at Yad Vashem were surprised in an unpleasant way to see those movies. I really don’t know who was consulted and who made those movies.”
Prof. Yehuda Bauer, widely considered the doyen of Israeli Holocaust scholars and one of the speakers at the Forum, told The Times of Israel that he understood that “there is a serious internal examination by Yad Vashem of how this could have happened.”
“The apology which was published was appropriate but didn’t answer the question of who was responsible. I think there will be an internal examination to find out how this could happen,” he said. “I’m sure my colleagues are trying to find out what happened there.”
Professor Joshua Zimmerman of Yeshiva University, author of “The Polish Underground and the Jews,” said: “To present a video touching on the Soviet Union during World War II that emphasizes its role in defeating Hitler but excludes the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, occupation of Eastern Poland on 1939-1941 and the atrocities it committed at that time in Katyn, is a clear misrepresentation of the past. I am pleased Yad Vashem has acknowledged this.”
“Yad Vashem has never engaged in Holocaust distortion; exactly the opposite,” commented Efraim Zuroff, a Nazi-hunter who runs the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, surmising that the “material was not reviewed by the leading historians of Yad Vashem” before being presented publicly.
“It would be totally unthinkable for a reputable, respected and serious Holocaust research institute like Yad Vashem to approve a video with such glaring mistakes,” he said.
“This is not the first time that Yad Vashem found itself immersed in the politics of Holocaust memorialization,” noted Jelena Subotic, a professor of political science at Georgia State University and the author of “Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance After Communism.”
“It is a state institution, not a non-state independent scholarly body, and as such it can be at the mercy of various domestic political — especially Israeli diplomatic and foreign policy — needs. But each time Yad Vashem gives the stage to politicians and not scholars it risks losing control of its own scholarly independence. It is extremely embarrassing for one of the world’s leading houses of Holocaust memory to be the stage of Holocaust revisionism, half-truths, and political utilization.”
Subotic was one of several scholars who criticized Putin for his speech at the Holocaust Forum, where the Russian president claimed that 40 percent of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were citizens of the Soviet Union. Putin had recently attempted to downplay his country’s role in the outbreak of the war, instead seeking to shift blame for the conflict onto Warsaw. Polish President Andrzej Duda refused to attend the event in Jerusalem because he was denied the opportunity to address the gathering, with his spokesman saying that “a situation in which the President of the Republic of Poland will sit and listen to the lying, false words of President Putin, without having the possibility to reply, is not good.”
The controversy over Yad Vashem’s historical distortion comes less than two years after several of its historians slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for engaging in Holocaust distortion after he appeared to endorse a Polish narrative of the war years and released a joint statement with his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, defending Poland’s wartime record.
That statement was itself an effort to repair ruptured ties after Jerusalem condemned Poland for a controversial law that made it a crime to hold Poland responsible for Nazi crimes.
Under Netanyahu, a growing number of scholars have accused Israel of ignoring and downplaying Holocaust revisionism in Central and Eastern Europe, with Yad Vashem getting caught in the middle.
As one staffer told the New York Times in 2018, “many of us see a collision between what we believe are the lessons of the Holocaust and what we see as our job, and between the way Yad Vashem is being abused for political purposes.”
Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report