Monday, October 1, 2012

Forgotten Lessons Of The Holocaust

Human Memory & Morality

Me lost nit leben!
Yiddish expression (“They don't let you live!”)

Neville Chamberlain making his “peace in our time” speech after meeting Hitler in 1938.
Chamberlain Returns With An Agreement: Neville Chamberlain holds the paper containing the resolution to commit to peaceful methods signed by both Hitler and himself on his return from Munich on September 30, 1938. At Heston Aerodrome, he says: “[T]he settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine (waves paper to the crowd and receives loud cheers and ‘Hear Hears’). Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you ...”. Later that day he stood outside Number 10 Downing Street and again read from the document and concluded: “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”
Photo Credit: USC via Hulton Archive

Some people deny the Holocaust; this is particularly prevalent in many of the Arab and Islamic nations that now have an irrational hatred of Israel, thus denying a seminal event of human history that was primarily directed at the Jewish People. Such incitement to hate likely serves their political intentions, as noxious, fallacious and immoral as these might be. The leaders of Iran are the leading and most noted Holocaust deniers today; in the past there were others.

There are others who want to diminish the importance of the Holocaust, comparing it to other genocides in human history; this might serve the purposes of some political historians and the need to categorize events, but at least they can agree that a genocide took place. At least they have a memory and a knowledge of the events leading up to the crimes against humanity. At least they acknowledge its significance in the annals of evil.

Then there are others who both agree and remember the Holocaust but fail to understand its implications for today. They are far removed from its history and avoid its memory; for such persons it’s a historical event and little more. As time moves on and memories dim, the importance of the Holocaust as an event that markedly and in some ways irrevocably affected the Jewish People becomes, well, less important to modern-day Jews. Consider the following excerpt from a little-known book by a little-known author, Howard Roiter's Voices from the Holocaust (1975):
Elie Wiesel wrote the truth about North American Jewry during World War II in an article for the periodical Judaism [Summer 1967; 282], when he stated
Never before had so many Jews been abandoned by so many Jews. The massacre in Europe had almost no bearing on American Jewish life. […] Tea parties, card games, musical soirées continued to take place; of course, money was raised but entertainment was not omitted from the program. In certain free countries of Europe the situation was not better—perhaps, even worse. When  consulted by the governments whether to bring in refugees, some communal leaders had to answer, and their answer was less than enthusiastic.  (9)
That the number of deaths could have been lessened, if different political and military decisions were made in Washington and London, we today know as true after reading the historical record. That the Nazi maw could have been rendered less effective is also true.  The political and moral basis for early intervention is hopefully well understood today; silence in the face of evil is the best friend of tyranny. Even so, looking back, the above quote from Wiesel amply demonstrates that events in Europe might not have ever been that important; it was only important for the few who understood its implications or for those whose lives it darkened.

My father, a Jew originally from Poland, was a survivor of the German camps, of Siberia, of Displaced Persons (DP) camps, and of waiting to find a country to accept him permanently; he arrived in Canada in 1951. He found a job, married my mother a year later and started a new life and a new family. His life influenced my thinking and I sorely miss his presence, even today. His life taught me to enjoy what was before me, no matter the circumstances; he also taught me about social justice and to find the truth no matter how uncomfortable or ugly it might be. Ignorance keeps you in prison of your own making; the truth of events does set you free.

So, I might be in a position to understand something about the implications of evil, and certainly of the history of the Holocaust and its aftermath. For me, it wasn't solely an academic study. Others might not have such an understanding; such is clear. So, I do not wish to indict my fellow Jews living then for showing a certain callousness and disregard, since they did not fully know what we now know today about the Holocaust. Nor did they have the privilege of learning about it first- or second-hand, as I did. (In addition, since my early years I have read hundreds of books, articles and monographs on the Holocaust.)

So, now we come to another class of persons: Jews today who know little or nothing about the Holocaust and have no desire to do so, not even learning about it; their only knowledge might come from Hollywood films. Therefore, I would like to share a thought that has percolated in my brain for some time and needs some airing, following the honest words that Mr. Wiesel penned almost 40 years ago. It is such honesty that is required of us if we are to better understand events that shaped our history, even events of horrific nature that give definition to the word evil.

Consider this: If we Jews collectively do not today take the Holocaust as a monstrous crime against humanity, and that's what characterizes it, then we cannot expect non-Jews to do so. Ignorance of the Holocaust and its consequences cannot now be used as an excuse. It's more than signing petitions, making speeches and attending conferences or writing books, as important as these might be. It's about taking a moral and principled stand that rises above personal politics. To quote Abraham Lincoln, A house divided against itself cannot stand. We now have a full and sufficient knowledge of the Holocaust, with the publication of thousands of books, academic papers and monographs, to give us an understanding of its consequences and implications. We know why and how it happened? We know how the international community acted. And failed to act. Forgetting something is not the same as saying the event never happened.

Against this knowledge of the history of the Jewish People is the unpleasant yet important situation involving Israel and a particular American response that belies a level of concern, but is exceptional in its lack of understanding, and, moreso, in its callous and cold reasoning centred on essential self-interest. It is the case of the 40 American communal leaders who signed a letter (see text here, July 13, 2012) to Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on their displeasure with the Edmund Levy Report concerning its findings on the legality of the "West Bank." While on the surface this "public advice," although impudent, arrogant and foolish both in tone and measure, might in some way seem prudent and logical, as well as politically expedient, it's not based on such things at all; my sense is that the underlying reasons are the same as those that influenced the communal leaders during World War II—Fear. It's a fear of loss of many things, including acceptance, money and influence.

The letter betrays such emotions. In short, not wishing to offend in any way the sensibilities of the international community, as if Israel now has the genuine and committed support of most of the international community. No, such letters always contain other motives, which are evident in a response to one of the committee members, Alan Baker, in an email published on Haaretz (July 19, 2012):
In short, Ambassador Baker seems to have misunderstood the nature of our concerns, which stem from the added impediments the Levy Report poses for achieving a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – not the technical and legal reasoning used to arrive at its conclusions, which is irrelevant to our concern.
Hence, in the thinking of such otherwise intelligent persons, international law is "irrelevant"; political expediency and the concerns of particular American Jews ("our concern") trump all else. Talk about unmitigated chutzpah. Talk about not understanding. Such lack of knowledge often leads to the need to abandon principles and what can follow is what happened during World War II—Jews who abandon Jews, in this more current case, Israeli Jews. Is this based on genuine moral concern? Or is it merely camouflaged as such, dressed up in moral language, but is in reality little more than a protection of personal interests? Of looking for security and safety?

I wonder if these communal leaders have read the report in its entirety; I would hope so. Still, a few questions that require the light of day. Does it not matters to these Jewish communal leaders that the Levy Committee was headed by a retired Supreme Court justice? That the committee members have more comprehensive legal knowledge and understanding on the stated issue than the letter signers?  That the Israeli committee members have read thousands of pages of testimony and documents and weighed the evidence? Unlikely, on all three counts.

Here's another more important point to consider, a more personal one. It's good to have a broad view of social justice, since that's what strengthens democratic principles. Given the relentless attack on Israel and the Jewish People, it might now be time for these same Jewish leaders to consider first the best interests of the Jewish People. After all, they identity themselves as Jews; and social justice, so key to modern Jewry, is what's at stake here. Does the high sense of social justice that Jews deem important in consideration for others, for non-Jews, also apply for the Jewish People? I hope so, but I am left wondering if this is indeed the case.

Hovering in the background like a dark cloud are the painful but important lessons of the Holocaust, likely considered by too many an unnecessary intrusion, a relic that invades the space of a post-Holocaust period of comfort, safety and security. It's true that ugliness takes away from the beauty but what does one do when confronted with it. Ignore it? For reasons that I have enumerated in countless essays, including this one, I think they are mistaken, and gravely so.

It's my turn to be brazen and give unsolicited advice; I do so, however, with the utmost care and concern, These communal leaders can redeem themselves; it's not too late. Instead of drafting unnecessary and useless letters to leaders of Israel, they might start reading a few good historical accounts of the Holocaust (some of these books are listed on my site.), including some personal testimonies; by doing so they will find some uncomfortable and uneasy truths. No one reads these books for pleasure or enjoyment, but to obtain knowledge on how humans under a delusion can and do behave. Such an unpleasant task might even change the minds of some on a few things, but on this I am more doubtful, yet hopeful. This will take courage on their part. Truly, it's time well spent, lessons worth learning. Class over.