Switzerland‘s efforts in Holocaust Remembrance: interview with Simon Geissbühler

In March 2017, Switzerland assumed the Chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an organization which promotes historical research and education about the Holocaust and preserves the memory of victims through commemorations and memorials, especially in its 31 member countries. As part of the Swiss Chairmanship, the Embassy of Switzerland in the United States is working together with Swiss and American Holocaust experts to offer a series of events in Washington, D.C.

We discussed Switzerland’s Chairmanship of the IHRA with Simon Geissbühler, a Swiss Holocaust expert, a published author, and the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Switzerland in the United States.

1. Aside from your professional interest, you also have a personal and rather surprising interest in the Holocaust. What can you tell us about your personal relationship to Holocaust research and remembrance?

I’ve been interested in Eastern European history and Eastern European Jewish history since high school. A lot of people ask me, “how come?” In the beginning, my interest was probably related to literature. There was a very famous Yiddish writer who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer. I liked his short stories very much, and still do. Many of his stories are anchored in Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

Simon Geissbühler, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Switzerland in the United States.

Time passed, and I became a diplomat and got my first assignment abroad in Romania. My wife is Ukrainian and whenever we visited her hometown, we had to travel across Romania to get to Ukraine. During the trip, we always stopped at the same place; a small town of 20,000 inhabitants called Rădăuți, very close to the Ukrainian border. I remember an evening in 2008 when we were walking through this town, we saw a big Romanian orthodox church. Next to it, we saw an even bigger church. We looked at it and realized that it was a synagogue. My interest was piqued. When we went back to the hotel, I asked if there were Jewish cemeteries in the region. The answer was instantaneous: “No, no, no, we don’t have any Jewish cemeteries around here and there are no more Jews living here.” That was even more interesting: how come there was a huge synagogue in this small town, but there were no Jews and no Jewish cemeteries? That is when my research started. It began with a volume of photographs documenting Jewish cemeteries in small villages in the historical landscape of Bukovina, along the Romanian-Ukrainian border. I documented them and wrote three more books, so-called “travelogues.” In the process, I realized that there was little literature on the fate of the Jews in these areas in World War II. What happened to them?

The Jewish cemetery in rural Arbore, southern Bukovina (northeastern Romania). © Simon Geissbühler

I got to uncover a part of the Holocaust that wasn’t that well known or researched. As a historian, you often have the feeling that everything has already been said about the Holocaust. So many books have been written on the subject that it seems that there’s nothing left to discover. But I understood that it wasn’t so in the areas controlled by Romania after 1941.

In the last few years, I started moving more into Holocaust memory and remembrance and what it means to societies when they push aside that part of their history. I think that if you want to be a democratic and free society, you have to deal with your own past. You cannot deal with problems like anti-Semitism, racism and all these questions if you’re not clear about your own history.

2. Turning to the IHRA Chairmanship, what is Switzerland’s role within the organization?

The organization was founded in 1998. Switzerland joined in 2004. After 13 years of membership, we thought it would be time to take on more responsibility. Switzerland has done a lot in the past with regard to Holocaust remembrance and fighting anti-Semitism. By assuming the Chairmanship, we want to send a strong signal to the international community that these are important issues. It is also in line with Switzerland’s foreign and human security policy with regard to atrocities prevention and dealing with the past. I think overall it was this conviction that we can and want to do more, and that we have something to contribute that made us assume the Chairmanship.

3. More precisely, Switzerland has decided to focus on three main topics during its Chairmanship, education, youth and social media. What can you tell us about those topics?

Since the beginning, the Swiss Chairman-in-Office, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) Secretary General Benno Bättig, has stated that Switzerland wants to support the IHRA. It’s not about putting forward our own agenda, but really about helping the organization become more efficient and effective, and to refocus on its key tasks. That is why we picked three topics that are dealt with within the IHRA and that are dear to us: education, youth and social media.

These three topics are strongly interlinked and important to the Swiss government. We are proud of our educational system; we invest a lot in it and in our youth. As for social media: it’s maybe not what Switzerland is known for, but we are trying to become better, more competitive, and Swiss companies and the government are very involved in this area, so it’s something that makes a lot of sense from my point of view. And finally, of course, if you want to educate young people, share experiences about the Holocaust, you’ll quickly end up with social media because it is an instrument that allows sharing content.

4. Does Switzerland have a strong footprint in regard to remembrance?

That’s a very good question; my answer is yes and no. It’s not that strong because the Holocaust itself didn’t happen in Switzerland, but still we were obviously affected and indirectly involved in some ways. Remembrance is made easier by the fact that Switzerland did not have any concentration camps on its territory and no soldiers fighting in Eastern Europe. So the exposure to the Holocaust is more indirect, and therefore less of a direct threat to our identity. Remembrance is more complicated because we tend to say, “We didn’t have anything to do with it,” which, of course, is wrong because Holocaust remembrance is not only about who killed whom, it’s much bigger. It is a moral question, the one of how you treat other people, how in this specific case you treat Jews, how you treat minorities, and lastly how you deal with racism. Since Switzerland is a country in the center of Europe and shares the history of the continent with all our neighbors and other states, the Holocaust is a key element in our history as well. So the question is more a moral one overall: We have an obligation to remember what happened.

5. Why then do something about Holocaust remembrance in the U.S.?

When you look at Holocaust remembrance, the strongest international partners we have as a Chairman are based here in the United States. You still have survivors and many families of survivors, a thriving Jewish community, world-class research institutions like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and many universities in the United States offer Jewish or Holocaust studies. So this is an extremely vibrant context to talk about these issues. I think it’s a great opportunity to do something substantial here in Washington, D.C., during our Chairmanship.

6. With regard to Holocaust remembrance, what will the Swiss Embassy do in D.C. this year?

First we will organize a panel discussion series among experts, but not just for experts. This series is directed toward a broader public interested in Holocaust remembrance. We will host three different panel discussions. The first will be about Holocaust remembrance in general. It will cover the trends in Holocaust remembrance, how do we remember the Holocaust and what do young people know about it.

The second event of the IHRA series will be in early December. It will focus on the key topics of our Chairmanship: education, youth and social media. This will be a very interesting panel discussion because social media in regard to Holocaust education provides an opportunity, but it also contains certain risks. It is quite obvious that the Holocaust is a complicated and delicate issue, and if you reduce its substance to be able to transmit it through social media, for example, with 140- character tweets, communicating about the Holocaust can become difficult. But nowadays if we want to reach young people, social media are the way to go.

Our third panel discussion, at the end of January 2018, will be a bit different. In that panel discussion, we will move more into the future and discuss atrocities prevention. The question is: Did we learn something from the Holocaust? If so, what did we learn? If not, why, and what does it mean in regard to atrocities prevention today?

Our goal is to have an open debate among an interested public. In addition to this series, we might also have a photo exhibition: The Last Swiss Holocaust Survivors. It is a small and very touching exhibition which has been very well received.

7. With perpetrators, witnesses and survivors passing away, how will remembrance persist?

I think remembrance is like the ABCs: you aren’t born with it, you have to learn it. So learning the Holocaust remains a challenge because it starts anew with every generation. You have to learn it at school. Of course, when you are taught about the Holocaust, and a survivor visits your class to tell you what he or she witnessed, it is extremely powerful.

Soon, Holocaust survivors won’t be here to enter classes and share their stories anymore. Therefore, learning about the Holocaust will become more and more abstract.

8. How can we adapt to this new realm and how does it affect remembrance?

Today there are new solutions, which we will cover in our second panel discussion. For example, there are video archives where you can see Holocaust survivors talk. The Visual History Archive® of the University of Southern California founded by Steven Spielberg is now working on 3D interview screenings. It would then look like the survivor is sitting in front of you. I find this extremely interesting. But it won’t replace real exposure to a Holocaust survivor, of course. That is the first reason I think Holocaust remembrance will become more complicated.

The second is that the Holocaust recedes in time. It is clear that an event that happened 20 years ago or 200 years ago will affect us differently. If you have someone showing you the tattoo he received when arriving at Auschwitz, it’s not so easy to tell that person that it didn’t happen, that you don’t believe them. It is much easier to say so on Facebook or Twitter. We therefore need to put even more efforts into Holocaust education when there won’t be any more survivors. Of course, there are a lot of other things you can do to counter Holocaust denial, like museums or monuments. For example, there is a big push today to have a Holocaust museum in Kiev, Ukraine, and Bucharest, Romania. There is a huge state-of-the-art museum in Warsaw, Poland, one of the best in the world, which covers Jewish history and the Holocaust. This represents a trend, but museums are museums. They are important, but there is always the question about how you present certain contents and if you can reach the people you want to reach.

9. What are the challenges we face today when it comes to Holocaust denial?

We should not forget, especially when we go into Eastern Europe, that part of the Jews who were killed during the Holocaust weren’t killed at Auschwitz or at another death or concentration camp, but they were shot, beaten or tortured to death. People often say that Holocaust equals Auschwitz, which is certainly an important symbol, but it is much bigger than that. We tend to forget the approximately 3 million Jews who were not killed at a camp, but were shot over a pit in Eastern Europe. That is why I personally believe that the preservation of the mass graves in Eastern Europe is very important. It also became one of Switzerland’s priorities as part of the IHRA, even before our Chairmanship. A Holocaust denier will say: “it isn’t true; there are no Jews there, there were never any Jews living there.” When you see all these Jewish cemeteries and mass graves, they are monuments that prove that Jews lived there and thus leave little opportunity to deny it. So with these cemeteries and mass graves we already have monuments, and they should be preserved.

To learn more about IHRA’s work, please visit: www.holocaustremembrance.com

Stay tuned to the Embassy of Switzerland’s website and #SwissIHRAseries on social media to learn about our IHRA series.