My Word: Neighbors and the neighborhood

What is the difference between International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Yom Hashoah?

Members of a Knesset delegation stand in front of former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during ceremonies marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of a Knesset delegation stand in front of former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during ceremonies marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What is the difference between International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Yom Hashoah? The world.
That was my conclusion this week as I watched the UN and other august bodies go to town in a universal commemoration- fest. Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the spring, is a more somber affair marked by a wailing siren calling for two minutes of silence and the Every Person Has a Name project in which the names of the known Jewish victims are read out one after another, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour – something that both demonstrates the immense scope of the loss and personalizes it.
For it is personal for Jews. Wherever we are. The words “Never again!” are not just a slogan to be touted from a UN podium once a year. The Hebrew commandment “Zachor!” – remember – is part of our DNA.
I don’t think there can be many Jews born in the Diaspora in the first few decades after the end of the Second World War who didn’t play, at least in their own minds, “the neighbors game.” It seemed like a normal part of growing up Jewish for us to wonder which of our neighbors (if any) would have hidden us; who would have readily turned us in; and who, presumably the silent majority, would have stood by and done nothing, perhaps later going through our homes to see what family treasures were worth looting – taking the silver Shabbat candlesticks and hanukkiot for profane use.
Even those of us who grew up in relative peace and comfort lacked that ultimate feeling of security.
It was not rare for those of my generation to grow up without some grandparents – family members who had disappeared in concentration camps, labor camps and ghettos, or other unknown places along the way.
The universal message of the genocide promoted by the UN’s efforts – broadened to include all victims of all atrocities – is doomed to failure. Its very inclusiveness makes everyone a victim and nobody responsible.
It’s been stretched in so many different directions that it has lost all shape and form.
All over modern Europe, countries see themselves as the object of Nazi aggression – the German occupation that “forced” them to participate in Hitler’s Final Solution.
What image does the average person have of the Netherlands in wartime? Anne Frank hiding in “occupied Holland.” The Dutch, you might think – and be allowed to think – were all Righteous Gentiles who, when brutally taken over by the German war machine, did their best to protect their Jews.
It’s easy to understand why the Dutch prefer to cultivate this view of their history. It makes much pleasanter reading, once you’ve finished The Diary of Anne Frank, than an account of how the Dutch authorities readily carried out the German edicts, one of the reasons why the percentage of Jews from Holland killed in World War II was higher than that of any other West European country. Yes, the Franks had neighbors who hid them, but they had others who betrayed them.
That’s why Anne didn’t live to grow up and tell the rest of her story.
The same is true throughout Europe – and beyond. I once had a roommate who recalled how her grandfather helped save Jews in his village in Libya.
Poland, which has turned itself into a tourist destination based partly on trips to places like Auschwitz- Birkenau and the Warsaw Ghetto, is particularly sensitive. They stress that the death camps were Nazi facilities that happened to be on Polish soil. Soil that is so stained with Jewish blood and tears that it’s hard to imagine how the rivers don’t taste of salt.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top diplomat, actually managed to make the Jews disappear this week. Several friends and colleagues noted that Baroness Ashton published an official statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday that neglected to mention the Jews. At the same time, she managed to help promote the idea of a wartime Europe populated by good neighbors – and, of course, the universality of the lesson: “We honor every one of those brutally murdered in the darkest period of European history. We also want to pay a special tribute to all those who acted with courage and sacrifice to protect their fellow citizens against persecution,” read the statement.
“On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must keep alive the memory of this tragedy. It is an occasion to remind us all of the need to continue fighting prejudice and racism in our own time. We must remain vigilant against the dangers of hate speech and redouble our commitment to prevent any form of intolerance. The respect of human rights and diversity lies at the heart of what the European Union stands for.”
ONE OF the strangest series of pictures I saw last week showed the “Refugee Run.” Crossroads Foundation, a Hong Kong-based NGO, set up a simulated war-zone environment near the venue of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, so that global leaders and other privileged movers and shakers could get a taste of the life of a refugee.
This year activities focused on the horrendous situation in Syria.
I wondered if we couldn’t adapt the idea to the Israeli reality. Let’s call it the Kassam Skip, or something suitably catchy, and allow the world’s leaders to experience what it’s like to run for shelter during a missile strike. It wouldn’t take up much of their precious time. Seven seconds is all it takes in some places; 15 in others. It just feels like longer if your stomach is churning, your knees are weak and you have to find your children, pets and elderly parents to sprint together to the nearest shelter.
I bet Baroness Ashton would do it with grace. And then issue a statement reeking of moral equivalence making the Jews (sorry, make that Israelis, she doesn’t like that J-word) equally responsible for their plight as the Palestinians launching the missiles from Gaza.
Israelis have different types of neighbors to deal with. We’re in a very tough neighborhood in the global village. Here we don’t worry who might theoretically abet our enemies in times of persecution and who would try to save us. Here, we try to figure out where the world’s leaders stand (and it’s appropriate to note that Canada’s Stephen Harper would make a very good neighbor.
The US should be thankful to have him the other side of the border rather than any of the characters Israel has to deal with).
A huge delegation of the Knesset attended the official ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau this week, 60 MKs from the 120-member House. I wasn’t the only one to wonder whether the funds for the trip wouldn’t have been better spent helping the elderly – particularly the struggling Holocaust survivors – at home. An Israeli presence at Auschwitz does convey its own strong message of survival, but I often think that the trips to the camps act as a prize to exactly those countries where the Jews were persecuted and exterminated and most of the neighbors did nothing but watch.
One of the planes on the return journey was delayed for eight hours at Krakow military airport due to a technical problem. Several of the MKs whined with an astonishing lack of sensitivity that being stuck without showers, proper food and sufficient sleep was a terrible experience.
My heart went out to the Holocaust survivors on the plane. I tried to imagine what it was like for them to be trapped in a confined space in that oh-so-cold and foreign land, not knowing when they would be able to escape and return to the lives they have built in Israel.
For that is the world of difference – for Jews, this is home, no matter what the neighbors say.
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The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.