As European nations celebrate their past, a US Holocaust envoy reminds them of its darker corners

World News

WASHINGTON (JTA) — At a time when some European nations are seeking to revise their Holocaust histories to emphasize victimhood, a senior Biden administration official says the United States should keep reminding them of the dark corners of their past. 

Ellen Germain, the State Department’s special envoy on Holocaust issues, said she has spent a lot of time recently engaging with leaders of countries who are seeking to venerate heroes who resisted Soviet oppression. The problem is that many of those figures also worked with the Nazis to persecute Jews. 

Speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this week, Germain framed her job as ensuring that countries take the totality of that history into account. She has repeatedly made the case for removing or at least modifying plaques, statues and other memorials to people who collaborated with the Nazis.

“I understand why they’re being glorified as national heroes after World War II, but you can’t just erase what they did during the war,” Germain told JTA.

Germain’s office was established in 1999, and she has served in the role since August 2021. The envoy’s role is to persuade countries to give financial restitution to families of Jews who were murdered and exiled during the Holocaust. In the late 1990s, many countries were still coming to terms with their long-overlooked obligations toward Jewish communities that had been persecuted and wiped out. Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. deputy treasury secretary at the time, pressed the Clinton administration to create the position to show U.S. commitment to seeking restitution.

Since 2017, the office has written reports on how countries are implementing the Terezin Declaration, a 2009 agreement between 47 countries to pay restitution to survivors. The office also works closely with the World Jewish Restitution Organization to push countries to pass laws facilitating restitution. And it works with the State Department’s antisemitism monitor to track antisemitism and campaign against it, to promote education about the Holocaust, to preserve Holocaust-era archives and to organize Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations.

Germain, a career diplomat who has served in multiple posts in Europe, the Middle East and the United Nations, said most countries now have advanced restitution mechanisms, lessening the need for U.S. pressure. She added that some countries, including Poland and Croatia, still need to pass legislation to that effect. 

Her focus more recently has been on pressing countries to more openly and honestly confront their roles in the Holocaust, a job complicated by states’ natural tendency to create heroic national myths. She would like to see monuments to perpetrators of atrocities removed, or at least modified.

More broadly, a resurgence of the far right has worried Jewish groups and the Biden administration. Poland has passed laws criminalizing accusations that some Poles collaborated with the Nazis, and others restricting restitution. Hungary’s approach to its role in the Holocaust has long been a matter of debate between the government and Jewish community. Far-right parties have made gains in recent elections in Austria, Germany and France, among other countries. Neo-Nazi marches also still make headlines across the continent.

“You get a certain amount of what we call revisionism or rehabilitation, like rehabilitation or glorification of people who are considered national heroes because they fought the communists,” she said. “They fought the Soviets after World War II, but they also participated in acts of Nazi genocide. During World War Two, they collaborated — sometimes they were directly involved in deportations or mass killings. There are figures like that in Lithuania, Ukraine, in Croatia, you’ve got street names named after some of them.”

Germain named Juozas Krikštaponis and Jonas Noreika in Lithuania; Roman Shukhevych in Ukraine; and Miklos Horthy in Hungary as examples of people memorialized for their anti-Soviet campaigns who also collaborated with the Nazis. 

Germain has been having conversations about the resurgence of such memorialization in her travels. How receptive her interlocutors are, she said, depends on the country. Late last year, she traveled to Lithuania and Hungary, and in Germany she addressed a course on the Holocaust for diplomatic and security professionals from across Europe. In January, she accompanied Douglas Emhoff, the Jewish second gentleman, on his heritage tour of Poland and Germany.

Lithuanian officials were receptive to her efforts to get them to grapple with their Holocaust history, she said.

“I was really, really pleasantly surprised and impressed by how open everyone was in Lithuania to the discussion of this,” she said. “Everyone from the government to academics to journalists. “I did a panel event there that live-streamed and had 20,000 viewers, and the questions and comments just from the people in the audience about this — they were just much more open to saying, ‘Yeah, you know, we realized this is a problem and we need to figure out how to deal with it.’”

The Hungarians, by contrast, appeared wary. Hungarian officials have sought to equate the Holocaust with Soviet-era repression and revive the reputations of figures like Horthy. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has unsettled many in the West with his hard-right turn and rhetoric that, at times, appears to cross over into racism and antisemitism.

“Hungary is a more difficult question,” she said. ”I didn’t find the same level of openness. But I did find a willingness to at least talk to me about it.”

She did not mention the opposite democratic trajectories of both countries: Lithuania, along with Estonia and Latvia, have eagerly turned toward Europe and the United States in recent years, particularly as the Russian threat looms directly across the border. Hungary, by contrast, has become more insular and hyper-nationalist.

Germain said she takes a nuanced approach to making the case for confronting the past. Some of the people she wants to see made accountable for their crimes were genuinely at the forefront of their countries’ struggles against the Soviets.

“They don’t have to be written out of history, and in fact, they shouldn’t be because people need to know what they did,  both good and bad,” she said. “But the point is, make the history more nuanced and teach the citizens of these countries what the full story is, and if there are statues and memorials to some of these guys… either take it down or add some context to it.” 

She cited “a plaque to Jonas Noreika on the National Library in Vilnius, in Lithuania, that just says that he was a great man.” Noreika was a high-ranking police officer who is believed to have personally overseen the murder of Jews. He is venerated in Lithuania as a hero for fighting the Soviet Union alongside the Germans.

Germain said understands the impulse to seek heroes to forge a national identity after the Soviets sought to negate the histories of the countries they dominated  — and especially in the face of a resurgent imperialist Russia that has invaded Ukraine.

“I think it took a while for them to start sorting out their history,” she said.  “And so, sometimes, there’s only in the last five or 10 years been real attention paid to the fact that some of these figures might not be as 100% heroic as they were initially thought to be.”