Fascinated by Jewish death

The Jew who left Auschwitz is memorialized - not the Jew who went into Auschwitz.

holocaust 88 (photo credit: )
holocaust 88
(photo credit: )
I can't cheer for the first United Nations-sponsored International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It's just hard to think of anything related to the Holocaust as a victory, as far as Jews are concerned. To be fair, it was quite an achievement for Israel to get the UN to pass the resolution establishing January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as a day for commemorating and teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. Together with a handful of other, mostly symbolic moves in the UN this past year, it signals the body's growing acceptance of Israel. Considering the rocky relationship that Israel has had with the UN throughout its history, that's welcome news. But it is worth asking why the UN needed six whole decades to declare the Holocaust "a unique evil which cannot simply be consigned to the past and forgotten." Really, was the UN swayed by revisionists' claims that the whole thing was just an elaborate fabrication? Was it waiting for more evidence? For survivors, this recognition comes way too late. And in Europe, where Holocaust memory is subjective, it probably won't matter anyway. Germany has accepted full responsibility for the Holocaust and taken great strides to rectify what it can. But after that, the record of much of Europe is pretty ugly - ranging from the largely financial motives of certain states in erecting Holocaust monuments (to draw Jewish visitors and their tourism money), to the hypocrisy of countries that beat their chests over wartime crimes while tolerating modern anti-Semitism, to the offensive refusal of other states to even admit that their own citizens and officials willingly aided the Nazis in their genocidal scheme. A "Holocaust Day" actually lets countries like these off the hook, allowing them to sweep their transgressions under the carpet as they pay lip service to "the horrible injustice against humanity that was unleashed on our continent," blah, blah, blah.... LAST YEAR, during the highly-orchestrated 60th anniversary ceremonies at Auschwitz, more than a few respected figures in the world of Jewish causes/Holocaust commemoration shared with me their concern that the whole display was - at least in part - a way for world leaders to say, "Well, we can put all that behind us now, right?" Then there is the question of the Holocaust legacy. Solemn homages to the Holocaust's victims invariably devolve into the critique that genocidal massacres in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, etc. show that the world has not learned the lessons of the Holocaust. This is not only trite, but irrelevant. After all, had there never been a Holocaust against the Jewish people, the world would still have had an obligation to prevent other atrocities. Yes, the Holocaust has universal lessons for the rest of mankind. But it has a greater, Jewish lesson that is particular to us. What we have done with that profound and mesmerizing experience is turn it into little more than a genre. We have saturated the world with Holocaust movies, books, museums and speechy memorials. Hugely important as some of these have been, their sheer volume has also diluted Holocaust commemoration, making it less significant, and therefore less effective. The Holocaust is ceasing to be awesome, and is becoming downright common. THAT DOESN'T mean there is no longer a need to ensure that the Holocaust remains in the world's consciousness or, indeed, in ours. Fundamentalist Muslims have taken up where Goebbels left off - attempting, as Iran's president has done in recent months, to blot out the memory of the Holocaust, or to twist it and use it against us. The Arab world is awash with perversely anti-Semitic materials and Holocaust denial literature that is used - again, as in the case of Iran - to encourage the destruction of Israel and the persecution of Jews everywhere. Against such a threat, no Jew can afford to be complacent. What we should be, though, is discerning. And we can start by looking afresh at the way we choose to remember the Holocaust. For one thing, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is the wrong date for such things. By condensing the enormity of the Holocaust into one monstrous place, it homogenizes, even trivializes the vast scope of the Nazis' murderous campaign. The unique pathos of each individual soul that suffered at their hands dulls and blends into a single (inadequate) narrative. Another consequence is the perpetuation of the image of the Jew as victim - not as the religious, cultural and intellectual phenomenon that he is, but as one who is merely affected and does not affect others. In short, the world memorializes the Jew who left Auschwitz - either dead or alive. It does not, however, remember the Jew who went into Auschwitz. The Jewish state, on the other hand, prefers to immortalize the bravery of those Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto who fought - for their lives, for their freedom, and for their very Jewishness. Would that we could be more like them, fascinated by Jewish life rather than Jewish death. The writer is Jewish World editor of The Jerusalem Post and currently acting editor of its UpFront weekly magazine.