After years of mounting pressure from Western governments, the Estonian Cabinet has designated Jan. 27 as Holocaust Day.
However, the government did not make public observance compulsory — so it’s unclear how widespread observance will be — and the Ministry of Education has not yet announced specific educational programs.
The date falls on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
The day will commemorate both the Holocaust and other 20th-century acts of genocide, including the mass deportation of Estonians by Soviets to Siberia.
The move comes two years after Council of Europe member countries signed a declaration to devote one day of every school year to the Holocaust. Numerous other European countries also chose Jan. 27.
Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas denied that outside pressure influenced the decision to institute a Holocaust Day. Estonia, which aspires to join the NATO defense alliance this November and the European Union in 2004, has been criticized over the past year by Western leaders who say the tiny Baltic nation has yet to confront its Holocaust history honestly.
In May, U.S. Ambassador Joseph DeThomas angered Estonians when he published an editorial in a local newspaper reproaching Estonians for keeping silent about war crimes committed during the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation, and for their passiveness in investigating Estonian collaboration.
“Proclaiming Holocaust Day means acknowledging objective reality at the time when Estonia is knocking on the door of NATO and E.U.,” an Estonian newspaper editorialized this week. “It seems that the Estonian government has changed its stance overnight, since” a previous minister of education “stated that the Holocaust topic has been adequately covered in school textbooks.”
The announcement has not gone down smoothly with Estonians, many of whom, after decades of Soviet propaganda, have only a faint understanding of the crimes committed in their homeland.
An Internet poll on the subject tallied 390 respondents, of whom 93 percent were against the national commemoration.
Estonia’s prewar Jewish population was about 6,000. During the German occupation, about 5,000 Estonian Jews fled to Russia.
Of the 1,000 who remained, only seven survived. The Germans also killed 7,000 other people, including 6,000 ethnic Estonians.
Though only 3,000 Jews live in Estonia today, Holocaust-related issues have emerged as a fierce source of debate in the past month. In late July, the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center provided the Estonian Security Police Board with the names of 16 Estonians it claimed helped murder Jews in Belarus in August 1942.
The Police Board denied any Estonian participation and hastily closed its investigation — despite a report from an independent Estonian war crimes commission that confirmed the participation.
The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn expressed its concern about the Police Board’s decision to the Estonian government.
Passions have been high since early July, when the Wiesenthal Center announced a program offering $10,000 rewards for information leading to the conviction and prosecution of Nazi war criminals. The program sparked anti-Semitic news items and public outrage, including the offer from one Estonian man of $20,000 for information about Jewish KGB agents who deported ethnic Estonians during Soviet rule.
Last week in Parnu, Estonia’s third largest city, the City Council prevented a private group from establishing a monument praising Estonians who served in the Nazi SS.