On Jan. 27, the world marked the 70th anniversary of the red army’s liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp in the small Polish town of Oswiecim and remembered the more than 1 million who were killed there between 1940 and 1945, mainly Jews and Roma from around Europe, but also Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and nationals of a dozen other European countries.
The commemorative events in Poland attracted huge media attention and reminded the world of the unthinkable atrocities committed in a time that is still in living memory for millions around the globe.
Unfortunately, some politicians and media commentators decided to exploit the events to advance their own agendas — which often bear little relevance to the tragedy of the war.
As mentioned in our previous editorial, the notions of nation and nationalism will stay too prone to politicisation in the foreseeable future. The key issues of World War II and the Holocaust are closely related to, and indeed, intertwined with, the phenomenon of nationalism. However, we must be vigilant in not allowing the contemporary debate to sideline and obscure the real tragedies of the real people of the past.
Perhaps in this context, Polish authorities took the right decision to diminish the importance of political representations at the events in Oswiecim and concentrate instead on highlighting the presence of survivors.
With its history as part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan too experienced the effects of WWII and some of the Holocaust itself. Tens of thousands of Jews escaped the occupied western regions of the USSR to find a safe haven in its eastern parts, including in Kazakhstan. In fact, hundreds of prominent academics, teachers, musicians, doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals of all backgrounds, evacuated from Kiev, Minsk, Odessa, Vilnius, Leningrad and elsewhere, greatly strengthened young Kazakh universities, hospitals, industrial enterprises and many other institutions. They left a lasting legacy and many of them, as well as their descendants, became proud citizens of the independent Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan luckily escaped becoming a battlefield, with the exception of German bombings of the railway stations Zhanibek, Saikhin and Shungai, which were close to the front line in Stalingrad, in 1942. However, 1.3 million residents of Kazakhstan left to fight Nazi Germany in the red army’s ranks. That was more than 70 percent of the republic’s male population between 18 and 50.
Up to 600,000 of them lost their lives and found their resting places in the fields, mountains, rivers and swamps of Eastern and Central Europe. This number is comparable to the wartime losses of the United States, Great Britain, Italy, Czechoslovakia and Greece.
There were Kazakh soldiers among the liberators of Auschwitz and Majdanek, as well as many other places where people fell prey to the SS and Gestapo. The Kazakhs were also among many Soviet prisoners of war whom the Nazi treated little better, often in the same concentration camps. Hence, for many of our compatriots, the tragedy of Holocaust is known not only from books and media. Many of them saw its consequences with their own eyes and heard the accounts of survivors with their own ears.
In a 2010 interview with Israeli media, Kazakhstan’s ambassador at the time, Galym Orazbakov, noted that “one does not have to be Jewish to understand what the Holocaust means for the entire [Jewish] people.”
“We in Kazakhstan remember this tragedy. I am proud that my people, my compatriots, made their own valuable contribution to the victory over Nazism,” the ambassador stressed. That the war touched most Kazakhs on a personal level Orazbakov illustrated with the fact that his own grandfather left for war in 1942, a month before his daughter was born, and died in battles to liberate Ukraine in 1944. “The people from Kazakhstan fought in the ranks of the red army that liberated the prisoners of those terrible camps and saved the world from Nazism,” the ambassador said. “I am proud to note that my people gave shelter to thousands of Jewish refugees who escaped the Holocaust in that way,” he said.
The sacrifices of Soviet citizens, including Kazakhs, were more than enormous. No less than 27 million lost their lives in the war against Nazi Germany, either on the battlefield or through hunger and disease.
But the scale of the Soviet people’s heroism remained little known in the West for a long time. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War that began to change significantly. And though no nation that participated in WWII is satisfied with the recognition of its sacrifices, the Soviet people’s input into the common victory over Nazism, that most dangerous evil, must be seen as invaluable.
However, while recognising your own nation’s losses and sacrifices, one should never disregard or disrespect those of others.
Immortalising the heroism of our own people, the citizens of former Soviet republics, we should give due credit to their allies and to all those who fought against the common enemy. We must also avoid forgetting that without the lend-lease programme and other support provided by the hard labour of citizens of many nations, the Soviet Union might have fallen short of the resources needed to tackle Hitler’s military machine.
Indeed, does the heroism of Soviet citizens in the face of the world’s mightiest military of the time, the Wehrmacht, diminish the bravery of the Americans, Britons, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians and many others who won the war against the Japanese empire in the Pacific and liberated North Africa and Southern and Western Europe? Or the heroism of Poles, Yugoslavs and Greeks, who made many Nazis aware of the fact they were not only unwelcome in the lands they occupied, but would meet stern and resolute armed resistance? Or the enormous losses of the Chinese people in their 14-year fight against the Japanese empire? Or the Italian resistance and the bravery of those Germans who protested and sought to prevent Hitler’s atrocities?
The famous Russian poet Yevgeni Evtushenko wrote the poem “Babiy Yar” back in 1961. It is about the forest in Kiev where on September 29 and 30, 1941, the Nazis shot dead 33,771 Jewish residents of the Ukrainian capital and the adjacent area. The poem finishes with a powerful message that it is enough to remain human to understand someone else’s tragedy.
“There is no Jewish blood of mine,
But hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by anti-semites like a Jew
And that is why I call myself a Russian!”
Let us heed this message and proudly call ourselves Kazakh, Russian, Arab, Polish, American, German or Japanese, by staying human and compassionat