robert rozzet 58.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In November 2005 the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to set aside
January 27 each year to commemorate the Holocaust. The international day
of commemoration marks the day Auschwitz- Birkenau – where about one million
Jews and more than 100,000 others were murdered – was liberated by the Soviets.
Yet since that day was established, its integrity has been diluted by those who
would use it as a springboard for commemorating a series of fundamentally
To some it has simply become a catch-all-day for
marking man’s inhumanity to man. Although we certainly need to be aware of the
crimes that people have committed against their fellows throughout history,
there are certain facets of the Holocaust that make it stand out; it behooves us
to study it, teach it and commemorate it on its own merits.
most salient point is not the number of Jews killed, nor how they were killed,
nor who killed them, but why they were killed. Nazi ideology held that the Jews
– both individually and collectively – are evil from birth, the root of all
problems, and a threat to the rest of mankind by their very physical
Ultimately, a policy of murdering all Jews everywhere coalesced
because the group who planned, facilitated and led the murder genuinely believed
it was essential for the success of their plan to restructure the world along
Nazi racist lines. As their vision of a world run according to Nazi racist
doctrine crumbled, they clung to the conviction that at least by murdering all
the Jews they would achieve something glorious.
dimension rests precisely in the fact that the group targeted for annihilation
was the Jews. Jewish ethics are at the core of Western civilization’s code of
morality, which stands firmly against murder, and how much more so against
crimes like the Holocaust. The Nazis and their partners, who were rebelling
against that code, struck specifically against the group that stood for this
biblical tradition, and its standards of human behavior. In essence, the attempt
to destroy the Jews was an attempt to destroy Western civilization and replace
it with a Nazi perversion of society.
Of course, one could say that
communism, too – in the name of which horrible crimes were committed – also
sought to recast Western civilization in its own image.
Although this is
true, communist theory rests on many of the concepts derived from the biblical
and humanist traditions regarding social justice and human dignity, even as it
It is the Nazi attack on the Jews, and all this
implies, that continues to shake Western civilization to its foundations. It is
to this crime that philosophers and theologians apply concepts such as
“rupture,” “watershed,” “caesura,” “tremendum” or “epoch-making.”
It is a
crime that beggars both imagination and language.
A THIRD feature that
makes the Holocaust stand out is where it unfolded. The events covered a vast
geographic area directly, and a correspondingly vast expanse
A great many nations were drawn into the maelstrom of the
Shoah, whether as sites of murder, allies of the murderers, those who fought
against the killers or as givers of actual or theoretical refuge to its intended
In a similar vein, the sweep of individuals who engaged in the
murder, were accomplices or beneficiaries, or who for all intents and purposes
were passive onlookers, is as wide as it is deep. Thus the events of the
Holocaust are part of the history of an extraordinary number of nations and
Although some would seek to mystify the Shoah or isolate it from
the course of human events, it is firmly rooted in history, with antecedents and
results, bearing varying degrees of similarity to other events. This is one of
the reasons we continue to come back to it.
But equally, and sometimes
even more compelling, are those aspects of the Holocaust that are
unparalleled. These can be more difficult to grasp, let alone explain,
but above all they comprise a tremendous challenge to ensure that they won’t be
There is good reason why International Holocaust Remembrance
Day must focus on the Shoah itself. It is only by continuing efforts to fathom
this tragic chapter in history that we can hope to derive enough wisdom to
prevent similar tragedies from unfolding before our eyes.The writer is
director of the Yad Vashem Libraries and author of
Approaching the Holocaust,
Texts and Contexts (Vallentine Mitchell, 2005) and a soon to be published study
Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front.