Keeping the 'Holocaust' in Int'l Holocaust Remembrance Day

Only by continuing efforts to fathom tragic chapter can we hope to derive wisdom to prevent similar tragedies from unfolding.

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 different events.
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.
Perhaps the 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 presence.
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.
Another singular 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 rejects religion.
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 indirectly.
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 victims.
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 people.
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 repeated.
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 on Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front.