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Holocaust: the Soviet denial

FORTY years after World War II the Soviets still fail to admit that the Holocaust ever happened. A lengthy front-page article in the government newspaper Izvestia devoted specifically to the Russian liberation of Nazi concentration camps does not once mention the Jews. There is a memorial in Kiev of two victims of Hitler's extermination of Jews in a place called Babi Yar, but there is no sign that these victims were overwhelmingly Jewish. It was at Babi Yar that SS troopers and their Ukrainian collaborators killed the bulk of the Kiev Jewish community. Nor does the Politburo ever talk about the Soviets' own anti-Semitic campaign shortly after the war. Thousands upon thousands of Jews were arrested on fabricated charges of Zionist activity, spying for the United States, and plotting against Joseph Stalin. Many more were fired from their jobs, denied college admission, and harassed. Stalin was planning his own ``final solution'' for the Jews. Anti-Semitic mobs encouraged by the authorities were supposed to proceed with pogroms. Several leading Jewish personalities were already asked to sign a petition to Stalin apologizing for Zionist crimes but still begging him to protect Jews from the ``anger of the people.'' Stalin intended to oblige. All Jews would be expelled to concentration camps and exiled in harsh areas to the east of the Urals.

Sounds unbelievable? Yet Nikita Khrushchev hinted at the existence of this plan in his memoirs. Later, when he had already retired, he provided more details to several new acquaintances among Moscow intellectuals. Ilya Ehrenburg, the late famous writer and Stalin's prot'eg'e, disclosed to friends that he was among the top Jews required to appeal to the tyrant. The late popular poet Samuel Marshak verified his account. So did a former senior police official who told a relative of mine that during the winter of 1952-53, lists of Jews for deportation purposes were being prepared on Stalin's personal orders.

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Stalin's death saved the Jews of Russia. The deportation was canceled. Survivors of the great terror, Jews and gentiles alike, were released from jails and concentration camps. The worst was avoided. Should the current Soviet leadership be considered responsible for crimes most of its members had nothing to do with?

Here is the case for prosecution:

The Soviet Union is still in the hands of Stalin's heirs. They have repudiated the most extreme features of his rule, but the rule itself has been carefully preserved. Moreover, Stalin is being increasingly rehabilitated.

Although purges of the '30s -- especially those directed against the elite -- were denounced by the Kremlin, no shock is expressed that upon defeating the Nazis, Stalin did embark on a crusade against Hitler's favorite targets.

Not even younger Politburo heavyweights can claim total innocence. Consider, for instance, Mikhail Gorbachev. He joined the party in 1952 while a student at the Moscow University law school, where he also was a Young Communist League official.

Certainly people can change. And I would not judge Mr. Gorbachev or any other Soviet leader today on the basis of their marginal roles during the Stalin era. Short of direct involvement in the most monstrous crimes, even individual responsibility fades with time. What the Kremlin is definitely responsible for are his current processes. Soviet Jews are caught in a Catch-22. On the one hand, they are not allowed to assimilate. Being Jewish in communist Russia is a racial rather than a religious category. Conversion to Russian Orthodoxy would make no difference. Neither would a conscious identification with the Russian people, their culture, traditions, and interests. Jews are not mistreated more than other Soviet subjects. They do well in many professions and are not harassed by the authorities as long as they keep their mouths shut. Still, Jews are constantly reminded that they do not entirely belong and cannot be completely trusted. There is one token Jewish deputy prime minister. But generally, Jews are denied access to the Soviet political elite. And they encounter discrimination in being admitted to universities, particularly to the more prestigious schools.

On the other hand, those Jews who opt to live like Jews, to study Hebrew, to observe Jewish custom, are met with harassment. Some are arrested and sentenced on fake charges. It is no wonder that many Jews want to emigrate. Soviets claim that those who want to leave the Soviet paradise are being deceived by the Zionists. In fact, the majority are probably motivated by a desire to escape the humiliation and uncertainty of the Jewish status in the Soviet Union.

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But emigration has been reduced to a trickle. Fewer than 800 Jews were allowed to leave last year. In April, however, 166 Jews were allowed to depart -- the highest figure in nearly two years. The increase is commendable, but it does not approach the level reached in 1979, when more than 4,000 were leaving monthly. More important, the Soviet tendency to use human beings as currency in dealings with the West does not inspire much respect. Only when the Politburo accepts the need to treat its subjects with a degree of decency -- and not as a concession to the West but out of inner conviction -- will there be reason for confidence about Kremlin intentions at home and abroad.

The other day the same Izvestia that fails to acknowledge the Holocaust went as far as to use the occasion of the Bitburg visit controversy to compare Ronald Reagan to Adolf Hitler. The concept of shame seems to be alien to the Soviet propaganda writers.

Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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