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A new, possibly final, chapter of Holocaust Renewed light is cast on 50-year-old horror


WASHINGTON -- From the secretary of state's office here to the bank vaults of Switzerland, the long arms of the Holocaust are reaching beyond 50 years of tortured memories and equally tortured attempts to forget, and making news around the globe with the intensity and urgency of freshly unfolding events.

This recent spate of stories and revelations has been described by some historians as a new, if not final, chapter of one of mankind's most horrific events.

It has resulted from a confluence of circumstances as the World War II generation fades away and new discoveries emerge from documents more than from personal reminiscences.

So far-reaching have the ripples of the Holocaust been that Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish studies at Emory University in Atlanta, had to look no further than the newspaper last week for lecture topics.

"It's like the Holocaust is current events," she told her class.

Indeed, in the United States, many have been fascinated and confounded by the story of Madeleine K. Albright, the Czech-born, Catholic-raised secretary of state who, at age 59, discovered that her grandparents were Jews who were killed in Nazi concentration camps.

The talk of Switzerland today is the revelation that the purportedly neutral nation mishandled bank deposits of Holocaust victims and complied with the Nazis in laundering gold and treasures.

In Germany, a Harvard professor who wrote a controversial book accusing ordinary Germans of willing participation in Hitler's efforts to exterminate Jews received a rock star's welcome recently, surrounded by bodyguards and media and attracting standing-room-only crowds at opera houses and theaters where he spoke.

Throughout Europe, nations are re-examining their roles in the war and coming to grips with unsettling truths.

Here, members of Congress have conducted inquiries and hearings into the money held in Swiss banks.

Popular culture, too, is riding the wave, with a new Holocaust museum to open in New York in the spring, the Oscar-winning "Schindler's List" to be aired on television Feb. 23 and Holocaust-related manuscripts being sold to publishers at record prices.

"Why has a story that's really 51 years old entered into an avalanche of news?" asks Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which has been pressing the Swiss to return the assets of Holocaust victims to their heirs.

For one thing, the end of the Cold War has opened up previously classified archives in Europe and, in general, fostered more cooperation among leaders who are further removed from the horrors than their predecessors were.

Some historians also believe that mass slayings in the Balkans and in parts of Northern Africa have sparked comparisons to, and a look back at, the Holocaust.

Perhaps most of all, there is an 11th-hour rush to gain vivid accounts from and make reparations and offer a measure of justice, however symbolic, to the victims -- while they are still alive.

'I was there'

"By the year 2010, there may not be any survivors left," says Elie Wiesel, Holocaust scholar and Nobel Peace Prize winner. "People realize we have access now to the only ones who can say, 'I was there.' "

Arthur Hertzberg, a Jewish scholar and rabbi, likens these waning days of the survivor generation to an "Indian summer." And he believes that American Jews are determined to sustain their collective memory of the tragedy as a touchstone as they become more assimilated.

"The feeling is that forgetting the Holocaust, American Jews are allowing to evaporate the one searing event in this century that clearly sets them apart," says Hertzberg, a visiting professor at New York University.

"As this starts to fade, we are fighting very hard -- emotionally, without even knowing it -- to make it be remembered."

He believes such sentiments underlie the tangle of reactions to the revelation of Albright's Jewish roots -- specifically, her parents' actions in casting off their Judaism and then concealing it from her.

"Underneath all the politeness is muted outrage," says Hertzberg, former president of the American Jewish Congress. "It's only respect for Albright's private life that keeps it from being overt outrage.

"The feeling is, doggone it, horrible as it is, the Holocaust is part of the destiny of Jewish people. Those who deny it, or raise their children to think 'not them,' have behaved treasonably."

Revealing more secrets of the Holocaust, an episode Wiesel calls "the most documented event in history," are previously classified archives from former Communist states. The documents are telling stories that go beyond the central players, the Germans and the Jews, and are sparking investigations by such countries as Sweden, Spain, Portugal and France into their own roles.

France, for instance, has discovered a trove of Jewish property confiscated during the German occupation there, including paintings that now hang in the Louvre.

In Sweden, even the Wallenberg family -- though not specifically the heroic diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews in occupied Hungary -- is now being accused of having done business with the Nazis.

Steinberg says such discoveries are nothing less than "the last chapter of the Holocaust, the last chapter of the Second World War."

In writing that chapter, he says, "we're seeking to ensure, while the last of the perpetrators and victims are still alive, that history is written correctly."

Such efforts have coincided with the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, which, two years ago, spawned a "sweeping soul-searching on the part of European nations," Steinberg says.

But Steinberg suggests that the "necessary element" in the new spirit of self-examination -- as illustrated by the recent agreement of Swiss banks to establish a $70 million fund for Holocaust victims -- was the passage of time and generational change.

'We've turned a corner'

"Today, the person you are dealing with is not the person you're accusing," he says. "We've turned a corner in terms of Europe's willingness to come to grips with the moral dimensions as well as the financial dimensions of this problem."

Even Germany is planning a Holocaust memorial to be built in the heart of Berlin.

On the flip side, the post-Cold War age has made the United States less reluctant to take on European nations -- those that were allied against the Soviet Union during the Cold War -- and press them about their complicity with the Nazis, historians say.

And Jewish groups, long preoccupied with tracking down war criminals and debriefing survivors, have turned to reclaiming lost assets and examining the actions of peripheral nations.

"I don't think my generation wants to die until all these terrible questions about what the rest of the world was doing are answered," says Hertzberg, 75.

Arthur L. Smith Jr., a retired professor of history at California State University, says many of the details of unclaimed Jewish accounts in Swiss banks and looted treasures have been known for years but were not pursued.

When his book outlining these tales, "Hitler's Gold," was published in 1989, it was met with little fanfare.

He attributes today's fervent interest -- which has resulted in a reprinting of his book -- to politics, pointing to such lawmakers as Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, who has reaped headlines from his aggressive attack on the Swiss banking community.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the Harvard professor who wrote "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," suggests that the new wave of interest in the Holocaust reflects a shift in the discussion away from institutions and toward the responsibility of individuals.

"Too little attention has been paid to the actors, whoever they were -- whether they were the perpetrators or the bystanders -- and too little acknowledgment that people were making choices: How to help or hinder the Nazis? What to do with the property of Jews?" says Goldhagen, whose 1996 book has been a best seller in 11 countries, including Germany. "People involved at every stage were making choices of what to do."

Some believe that discussion of the Holocaust should -- and eventually will -- expand beyond the theme of never forgetting, the rallying cry of survivors.

Arno J. Mayer, an emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, believes the time may have come for putting aside pursuits born of vengeance or symbolism -- such as trying suspected war criminals who are 80 or 90 years old -- and concentrating on drawing lessons for future generations of all religions and ethnicities.

Remembering, forgetting

He says, in fact, it may be time to address the question of "forgetting -- without forgiving those things that are not forgivable."

"It will never be completely put aside, nor should it be," says Mayer, a Jewish refugee from Luxembourg. "But it may be the time has come to change the framework of the discussion of remembering and forgetting."

Mayer believes, for instance, that 15 years from now, a news story such as Albright's heritagewould be a minor one.

"There will be very few people who lived through that era with whom it will echo," he says.

Wiesel, however, suggests that the children and grandchildren of survivors will continue the "mission" of stoking the Holocaust's fiery memories.

"The last chapter will never be written because the whole story will never be known," Wiesel says. "It's too huge and gigantic. It is beyond comprehension and communication.

"It will take generations and generations to know more."

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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