What are the colors of Holocaust Remembrance Day?
The images collide in a deadly kaleidoscope, greens, browns, reds. A forest in Russia, by the small hamlet of Katyn. 4,421 Polish officers secretly executed there on Stalin’s orders in 1940. Evergreen Christmas trees alongside white peeling birches, multi-colored wildflowers, brown earth.
The Germans marched through Ukraine and Poland in 1941, rounding up and executing Jews in every village, town, city along the way—including my great-grandfather and teenage great-aunt. Green grass has covered all the blood since, the earth absorbing all evidence for a time. The Red Army arrived in the small town of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945 to discover a horror they could not have imagined, even at the end of this cruel war: a death camp, abandoned with the last 7,000 or so remaining victims alive, barely, because their captors ran out of time to kill them, eager to flee for their own lives. The images of emaciated survivors were captured in photographs, black and white. At least these are not red.
What to do with these stories? To remember them or not? To talk about them or not? And if one must speak about them, what to call them? These questions elicited mixed responses from early on. In Russia in 1961, less than a decade after Stalin’s death, the poet Yevgeniy Yevtushenko lyrically protested the state’s refusal to commemorate the massacre of Kyiv’s Jews at Babyn Yar, a ravine in a picturesque park on the edge of the city, where 33,000 Jews were shot to death over two days in September 1941:
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Of course, speak as he did of fear, Yevtushenko could do what he did—write what he wrote, speak it to packed audiences in Russia and later on in the United States—only because Stalin was dead. Stalin, as Yevtushenko knew well, had many earlier dissident poets arrested and shot over much less public candor than this. The 1960s made it possible, in a way it had not been in Russia for half a century prior, for a dissenter to speak his piece and possibly keep his life. Although there were still no guarantees.
There is a banality to evil, Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt famously observed the same year Yevtushenko published his poetic accusation of the Soviet Union of antisemitism. Arendt’s reflections on the Holocaust came through her reporting on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a perfectly competent bureaucrat who employed his bureaucratic skills to expertly organize the transportation of millions to their deaths. At his trial Arendt was surprised to discover that he seemed so normal. No monster, this.
Arendt’s idea rankled many at the time. Surely evil could not be the fruit of the brains and hands of those who are just, well, normal, banal, ordinary men. Evil could only be the work of those who are truly warped, perverted, evil down to the very marrow of their bones, right? It seems more logical, comforting somehow to assume it. But maybe the most comforting of all reactions to such historical horrors is to not speak of them at all, just pretend that this evil didn’t exist. In Russia, that certainly was the authentically Communist solution that Yevtushenko protested. Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil—or else. For to admit that the government could commit or permit atrocities on its territory was equally treasonous and unacceptable. Only in 1990 did Gorbachev finally admit that the massacre at Katyn indeed happened. Worse, it turns out that decades prior the Katyn forest had been designated for secret executions. Then in 1991 the first memorial to Babyn Yar went up at the site of the massacre, recognizing that that evil too deserved to be acknowledged, remembered, mourned.
Is it morally neutral to pretend such evil never existed? Or is it unjustifiably evil to erase the very memories of massacres and genocides—like the ones at Katyn or Babyn Yar? Sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, in 2005, long after even Russia decided to make a few concessions, the UN General Assembly at last took its own stance on these questions, designating January 27 of every year thenceforth as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Meant as a day of education with the goal of preventing such atrocities in the future, the establishment of this Remembrance Day makes assumptions: Education is essential. Awareness of former atrocities will prevent future ones in a way that perfect silence wouldn’t.
But is this last assumption true?
We acknowledge evil now; we have entire museums dedicated to commemorating it scientifically, properly, professionally. Educational outcomes for American children starting in elementary schools cover the Holocaust. Education-as-prevention is deemed effective for solving a multitude of modern ills—dietary, political, metaphysical. And yet, the harvest yields more banality of evil, if certain Ivy League presidents’ refusal this past December to condemn student antisemitic actions as hateful is any indicator. Indeed, antisemitic student protests present their version of such banality—for how could these students, who studied the Holocaust in schools, read the educational books, gone to the educational museums, simply ignore such evil in the past and call for its repetition in the present? How could they condemn war against one group by calling for the death of another?
Perhaps in 2005 things seemed a little more hopeful. Not so in 2024. For on this Holocaust Remembrance Day over one-hundred and thirty Israeli hostages are still in captivity, kidnapped from their homes in a terrorist raid on October 7, 2023. In Ukraine, Russia’s brutal war nears a second anniversary. The same cities and towns and villages through which the Germans rampaged in the 1940s, massacring Jews and anyone else who resisted, now live under a daily barrage of missiles that kill innocent civilians. But then, before the 1940s, there were the 1930s—the decade of Holodomor, a quieter massacre of the Ukrainian population through starvation, all by Stalin’s orders. A reminder that no violent bloodshed or missiles are necessary to kill a people efficiently.
But is any of this genocide? Or are they just isolated massacres? The continued debates in the news over what is or is not worthy of being classified a genocide belie our own banality: Obsessing over precision of language takes attention from the evil of the ongoing atrocities, focusing rather on the correct words to describe them. How civilized.
Aside from these debates over the correct language to use, both Ukraine and Israel are promptly slipping from public attention. Too many other disasters are unfolding elsewhere.
In Greco-Roman poetry, we find the literary device of the locus amoenus—a pleasant place. A lovely meadow lush with flowers, or a forest filled with green trees and singing birds, or a semi-wild garden blooming with delights. But every time the reader comes across such a description the spine chills: We have been conditioned to expect something horrible to happen next, in this beautiful place that seems so ill-suited for something so ugly—a brutal kidnapping, murder, rape. As historians, we go and visit such meadows, woods, glens in the real world. We behold their beauty and wonder, in anger or dismay or simply with blinding tears, Could such unspeakable tragedy really have happened there? How can flowers grow over the site of a massacre?
More of Yevtushenko’s words come to mind:
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous, like judges.
Here all things scream silently…
Maybe green isn’t always the color of life.
Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church (Zondervan Academic, 2023) and Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity (forthcoming, IVP Academic, 2024). She is Book Review Editor for Current, where she also edits The Arena blog.