February 26, 2020

Remembering the Holocaust: Reflections on Azerbaijan

Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, in 2013. Photo courtesy of Washington Post


Just this past Saturday, January 27, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was a day when much of the world officially remembered the great catastrophe that was the Holocaust. It was a day for commemorating the history of that frightful time, for renewing promises to “Never Again”, and a time for sharing insight on what human beings are unfortunately capable of, and also of heroes and survivors that had everything at risk.

In the days following International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I greatly appreciate the many and varied articles, graphics, videos and stories; uniquely and in some cases very specifically shining some light on all there is to remember. The most horrific tragedy to ever fall upon humanity, the Holocaust and World War II are both profound universes of stories, of individuals and of nations. These terrible catastrophes involved so many people, and by virtue of the role each played, and the concessions they were or were not willing to make in the face of fascism and cruelty, the Holocaust revealed the base instincts of over 80 countries of the world.

I was very young when it all happened, and as a Jew, or really any other person for that matter, I was blessed to come from Azerbaijan: a place that protects Jewish life; a country that could not be taken by Nazis that desperately sought its capture; a Muslim nation that has long ago built and safeguarded communities for Jews to live in freedom and peace, and that fought the Nazis and served as a supportive harbor for any Jew that managed to escape and flee to our lands, a nation that today holds a week long Holocaust memorial.

All of this makes me think of Azerbaijan’s history and specific stories I’ve learned throughout my life of the individuals amidst millions upon millions of individuals impacted by the war. From Azerbaijan, one out of six people were the victims of the Nazis, including the approximately 400,000 Azerbaijanis who were killed fighting against them in the battlefronts. Hitler desperately wanted to invade Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku and get hold of our natural resources. As a nation gifted with an abundance of oil and gas and as a haven of tolerance and especially, in this time, as a haven for Jews, it is critical to the outcome of WWII that Hitler never made it to Baku, after the Nazis, enroute, were devastated at Stalingrad.

One of the more specific stories about the Holocaust that has stuck out to me recently is connected to a young man I’ve gotten to know; Anar Usubov is an Azerbaijani living in Northern California. He is also a childhood survivor of the Khojaly Massacre, Armenia’s brutal attack on Azerbaijan in 1992, which stole the lives of innocent men, women and children, among them over 25 members of Anar’s family. Anar is very lucky to have survived it and has been quoted as saying he is grateful his own grandfather didn’t live long enough to see what happened to him. That’s because Anar’s grandfather was a survivor and also a hero of the Holocaust.

The Usubov family is Azerbaijani Muslim, and their religious identity played a special role in the heroic story of Shahhuseyn, Anar’s grandfather, and a man who saved many Jews from the grips of death. In one of the worst places in the world, Auschwitz, Shahhuseyn was imprisoned as a captured Soviet soldier, as Azerbaijanis served in the Soviet army to fight the Nazis. On the day of arrival and during the terrifying process of selection, Shahhuseyn realized the Nazis were separating the Jews from the Muslims by asking them to recite a verse from the Koran. In the midst of a long and crowded line, Shahhuseyn hastily taught as many Jews as possible a verse from the Koran, until he was identified for doing it and nearly beaten to death. Many Jews in the receiving line on that day at Auschwitz kept their lives, thanks to the courage of this one man.

Shahhuseyn’s story is something Azerbaijan is proud of and also very fitting for the history of a nation that has protected Jewish life for thousands of years, and a place that has given many lives to the fight for freedom, in foreign lands and at home, against invading nations and brutality. A place that throughout recorded history has been a land of rare and uncompromising tolerance. As an Azerbaijani Jew, I am proud of what my nation did during those years, and as we remember the Holocaust, it is comforting to remember the other side – the people and places that did all they could to fight against such atrocity, and to protect sacred innocent life, of all people the same.

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