June 15, 2017


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A current exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is titled “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust.” I would urge everyone who has the opportunity to see it.

What is collaboration? In the context of the Holocaust, and from a moral standpoint, it can be seen as a form of “cooperation with evil.” More on that later. But it can also be defined as cooperation with an occupying enemy of one’s country, to the latter’s detriment. In that sense, it is a form of treason.

What, then, is treason? One can define it as the political form of treachery. And treachery has a long history. Psalm 55:13-15 describes a treacherous friend. Judas provides the archetype. Dante consigns the treacherous to the ninth or lowest circle of Hell (see “Inferno,” Cantos XXXII-XXXIV). Why are the treacherous punished more severely in Dante’s scheme than, for example, thieves, killers, seducers, hypocrites or heretics? “… treachery,” writes John D. Sinclair, “the sin of cold blood, is a deeper, more inhuman, more paralyzing sin than all the forms of violence or simple fraud…” (“The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri,” Sinclair trans., Vol. 1, “Inferno,” New York, 1961, p. 414; see Canto XI, lines 61-66).

Treason is treachery to one’s cause or country. In the Middle Ages, the archetypal traitor was Ganelon, the betrayer of Roland at Roncevaux. For Americans, it is Benedict Arnold. During the Cold War, there were the “moles” and double agents, such as Britain’s Cambridge Five. (Three of the latter fled to Moscow; of the two who remained and confessed, one retired to southern France and later married an opera singer, while the other had his knighthood annulled.)

The trouble with treason is that it assumes a single legitimate object of loyalty, which the traitor has betrayed out of self-interest. But traitors often appeal to a higher loyalty. Cold War spies held Communism above patriotism. Edward Snowden can claim that truth and openness trump civic duty and confidentiality agreements. Peter I considered his erstwhile drinking buddy Ivan Mazepa a “Judas,” but to most Ukrainians he is a hero.

Can one speak of treason in religion? From an Orthodox point of view, the Union of Brest can be seen as a betrayal of the Patriarch of Constantinople. But to the Uniates, it was the salvation of a corrupt and beleaguered Ruthenian Church. According to a recent review, Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel “Silence” and Martin Scorsese’s eponymous film, set during the brutal persecution of Catholics in 17th century Japan, suggest that even apostasy – the formal betrayal of Christ – can be justified as a kind of spiritual martyrdom if enacted to save others from an agonizing death (Gabriel Torretta, “Disincarnate Christ,” First Things, May 2017, pp. 53-56).

If treason can be justified, what about collaboration? As the Holocaust Museum exhibit demonstrates – and its treatment of this sensitive subject is admirably fair and impartial – some collaborators thought they were merely “doing their job,” others were motivated by patriotism or civic duty, and a few took advantage of their positions to save Jewish lives. Perhaps due to a paucity of materials, the exhibit devotes little attention to Ukraine. But there is none of the Ukraine-bashing that we have seen in Soviet and neo-Soviet treatments of the Holocaust and World War II. The exhibit does mention the many cases of Gentiles who saved Jews. And it points out that in the Nazi-occupied “East,” the penalty for shielding Jews was death.

The case of Ukraine differs in other ways from that of other Nazi-occupied lands. If collaboration means cooperation with the enemy occupiers of one’s country to its detriment, can western Ukrainians, who had no country of their own, have been collaborators? If their true country was the Ukraine to which they aspired, were they betraying it by trying to pit one occupant against another? Did the Ukrainians to the east who welcomed the Wehrmacht as a deliverer from Stalinism betray the “Soviet motherland,” or were they acting out of loyalty to the same Ukraine as their Galician and Volhynian brethren? Were those who organized a network of Ukrainian aid organizations under German occupation thus protecting their people from dire poverty, disease and even starvation, acting to the detriment of their country? If not, then the label of “collaborators” does not fit. And what about those who thrived under the postwar Soviet occupation? Were they collaborators?

That still leaves the other definition of collaboration: a form of cooperation with evil. It is a very broad definition. One theologian quoted in the Holocaust Museum exhibit suggests that mere presence at the Holocaust was enough to make one guilty. That would implicate millions. At the least, collaboration in the moral sense must be conscious, willing and active.

Artists have often been accused of collaboration. István Szabó’s 1981 film “Mephisto” depicts the career of an actor who ingratiates himself with the Nazis. The temptation to cooperate with a totalitarian regime has been particularly strong for writers, who ordinarily cannot make a living outside their native linguistic space. If we must brand Maksym Rylskyi, Pavlo Tychyna and Mykola Bazhan – among the few first-rate poets of the “Executed Renaissance” of the 1920s to survive Stalinism – as collaborators, we do so with understanding. Musicians, while more likely to find employment abroad, sometimes stayed in their homelands out of a commitment to preserve their culture from totalitarian ideology. Few people think of Sergei Prokofiev or Dmitrii Shostakovich as collaborators, though they enjoyed successful (if stressful) careers while Stalin was murdering millions. Yet musicians who remained in the Third Reich, like Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (who helped save Jews and did not support the Nazis) or the popular singer Rosita Serrano (who was finally banned by the Nazis for aiding Jewish refugees), suffered public censure for years after the war.

Every nation has its heroes and its traitors, its saints and collaborators. Most of us fall somewhere in between.


Andrew Sorokowski can be reached at andrewsorokowski@gmail.com.

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