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Rewriting the History of the Holocaust
Eliezer Berkovits (10/198, October 3, 1980)
Some time ago I participated in the U.S.A. in a symposium on the subject of the massacre of European Jewry. To my amazement one of the members of the panel treated us and the audience to a most eloquent homily on the theme of the Righteous Gentiles. We had, of course, all been aware that during the murder of the six million Jews there were a few Gentiles who helped individual Jews and, occasionally, even risked their own lives in order to save Jews; we never realized that they were as numerous and active as the speaker had discovered. According to him, even the Jews of Slovakia were saved by righteous Gentiles. I could not help wondering, if so, where did my uncles, aunts and cousins go, never to come back. After all, they too lived in Slovakia. The organizers of that symposium adopted for the theme of our meeting the title of my book Faith After the Holocaust. Together with the audience I understood that the intention was to struggle with intellectual honesty with the most serious problem of our generation, the problem of faith in God after this radical catastrophe of the Jewish people. This speaker, however, by his presentation turned the announced theme into Faith in the Righteous Gentile After the Holocaust. The original formulation of the subject did bear this interpretation, yet, I could not help thinking that to turn Faith After the Holocaust into Faith in the Righteous Gentile was sacrilege, a desecration of Jewish martyrdom. At the time, I could not grasp how a highly respected American rabbi could be guilty of such vulgarity. Since then, however, I have come to notice in certain circles a feverish drive to ferret out as many righteous Gentiles as humanly possible, a task that should not be too difficult these days. Ever since the war, every German or Austrian I have met, either was hiding Jews in his cellar or at least was opposed to Nazism at considerable sacrifice to himself. The continually growing list of righteous Gentiles should not worry anyone. On the contrary, it is good to know -- if it is true -- that at a time of the most serious eclipse of Western civilization there were still numerous humane people around who were willing to take chances in order to safeguard the divine image in which man was created. What is extremely disturbing is the motivation of the increasing number of the champions of the righteous Gentiles.
Have we the right to cast stones?
In an English-language Israeli Jewish newspaper there appeared a glowing review of a volume that describes the heroic humanitarian efforts of a village pastor and his wife, who during the war, together with the village population and in defiance of the Vichy government, gave succor to a great number of Jews. Undoubtedly, the pastor, his wife and the village people deserve our gratitude and admiration. However, the reviewer, a member of the staff of a university institute on contemporary Jewry, thought it necessary to conclude his comments with the following -- in his own words -- "nagging question": "had the boot been on the other foot, how would Jews-especially religious Jews-have reacted to saving the persecuted of other faiths? Have we really the right to cast stones?"
Now we know what kind of questions worry some Jewish scholars at an academic institute on contemporary Jewish life and history. Let us analyze the problem of the reviewer. We shall disregard the suggestive ambiguity of his phrase "especially religious Jews." Well, how would Jews have acted towards the persecuted of other faiths in a similar situation? The question, it would seem to me, is utterly meaningless. For pastor Trocme acted as he did in a fundamentally different historic and moral context than a rabbi would have, for instance, towards persecuted Christians. Andre Trocme has to live with the burden of the measureless Christian guilt toward the Jewish people during many centuries of oppression, persecution and murder. He saw before his own eyes one of the most abominable crimes being perpetrated at the very center of Christian civilization. The more ethically sensitive a person is in such a situation, the heavier to bear is the burden of guilt and shame. A Jew, however, facing the question whether to risk his life in order to save a Christian, would be weighed down by the memories of centuries of Jewish martyrdom at Christian hands. Especially if that person is unknown to him, he would even have reason to wonder whether an offspring of the persecuted Christian may not one day be leading Jewish children to the gas chambers. One may also add with a fair measure of certainty that "had the boot been on the other foot" Jews would not have acted like millions of Christians, who with gleeful approval and often with active participation, supported the slaughter of a third of the Jewish people. Furthermore, on what scholarly research in contemporary Jewry is the assumption based that in the reverse situation a handful of Jews would not have been found who would have behaved not differently from the way Andre Trocme did in his village in Vichy France? The acme of insensitivity to the Jewish experience in Christian lands is the conclusion of that reviewer's "nagging questions."
"Have we really the right to cast stones?" Certainly not at Andre Trocme; certainly yes, at Nazi Germany, at her millions of Christian supporters and collaborators in the persecution of the Jews all over Europe; certainly yes, at the encouraging indifference of the entire power-structure of Western civilization. What that reviewer wishes to convey is that we are not really better than "they," maybe even a bit worse. The most significant aspect of this revelation is the fact that he makes his statement in face of the murder of a third of the Jewish people.
Some consider the Gentiles blameless
This kind of evaluation of the function of the "righteous gentile" is no longer an exception. It is becoming almost typical among certain Jewish intellectuals. At a Shabbaton arranged by the Jerusalem branch of a well-known American rabbinical school it was my task to speak on some aspects of the Holocaust. In my presentation I was attempting to come to terms with a problem that is hardly ever considered, namely: How is one to explain the demonic inhumanity perpetrated against the Jewish people in the course of history, which has found its -- most barbaric manifestation in its Nazi phase? How could human beings sink so low?
In the following discussion one of the criticisms was: a) we are telescoping all Jewish experiences into disaster history. After all, there was not only the Holocaust, not only persecutions, pogroms and massacres. Often and during periods of considerable length, Jews did live among the gentiles in peace and even reached high standards of living and positions of influence; b) the Allies should not be criticized for not helping the Jews during the war. Let us remember that they were fighting that war and had to think first of all of their own national interest; c) the Holocaust was nothing exceptional. Look what happened in Biafra; and finally d) let us not be too critical, for we need friends and today more than ever before.
How can these Jews minimize the Holocaust?
The person who offered this criticism was a university professor who, of all subjects, teaches The Holocaust. There is no need to respond to this kind of interpretation of Jewish history. Let us just sum up what he was saying. If the reviewer made the point that we were not really better than "they," the professor underpinned such a position by declaring that "they" were not really so bad. He also added that the Jews were not really singled out for extermination as Jews. What happened to them, happened to others, too. Finally, let us not criticize "them," too harshly, for we need "them" as friends. Strangely enough, the professor did not realize that every one of his statements was contradicting every other. If the treatment of the Jews by the Gentiles was not really too bad, then, of course, they were not singled out for extermination and their case was not to be compared to the genocide in Biafra. Again, if nothing special happened to the Jews and if, indeed, they were not subjected to genocide, then one should not criticize the gentile world too harshly not because of needed friends but because it does not deserve such criticism. If, on the other hand, it is politically unwise to criticize "them," then there must be ample moral justification for criticism, in which case "their" behavior toward us must have been much worse than the professor would want us to believe.
It may be of interest to recall here the evaluation of the Holocaust by a more cool-headed observer. This is what Arnold Toynbee has to say on the subject in his A Story of History:
"A Western nation, which for good or evil, had played so central a part in Western Civilization ... could hardly have committed these flagrant crimes if the same criminality had not been festering foully below the surface of life in the Western World's non-German provinces. The twentieth century German psyche was like one of those convex mirrors in which a gazer learns to read the character printed on his own countenance through seeing the salient features exaggerated in a revealing caricature. If a twentieth century Germany was a monster, then by the same token, a twentieth-century Western Civilization was a Frankenstein guilty of having been the author of this German monster's being. "
It would be as pointless to look for logic in the arguments of the professor as in the "nagging questions" of our reviewer. The question however is: how is it to be explained that intelligent Jews of unquestionable personal integrity engage in such contortions of self-abasement and subversion of sound moral standards in order to minimize the criminality perpetrated by a depraved humanity on the Jewish people?
Jews need a positive historical identity
It would seem to me that a statement made by that participant in the symposium whose attitude we have described at the opening of this essay contain the key to the enigma. At one time in the discussion he said that he insists on the importance of the many deeds of righteous Gentiles in saving thousands of Jews because he did not want us to be nothing but "anti-anties." The significance of this statement is revelational in a twofold sense. First of all it is a confession. This extremely popular American rabbi holds on tenaciously to his faith in the righteous Gentiles not so much for objectively justifiable reasons, but because, for reasons of his own, he does not want Jews to be nothing more than being against those who are against them. This motivation has little to do with righteous Gentiles but rather with what the rabbi desires and does not desire. Thus we have reached the second aspect of his revelation. In a sense, one might say that his statement is rather puzzling. How can one suggest that a Jew who lives within the historic continuity of the Jewish people and of Judaism, who is committed to the teachings of the Torah, observes God's commandments and practices Judaism in his daily life, if he concentrates his attention on the anti-Jewish criminality of the world around him, at the same time fully acknowledging the heroic behavior of a small band of righteous Gentiles of infinitesimal consequences in relationship to the magnitude of the international crime -- that this kind of a Jew is nothing but "anti-anti"! The truth is that with this kind of a Jew, because of the authentic vitality of his Jewish identity, his anti-anti attitude is indeed, as a healthy double negative, the positive manifestation of the Jewish essence of his personality.
Yet, the rabbi should be believed; he knew what he was talking about. He was talking of the Jew who is alienated from the historic continuity of Judaism. He lives in a Jewish vacuum. Intellectually as well as emotionally he is much more at home in the gentile world than in the world of Judaism. How can he throw his " j'accuse" at the Gentiles without destroying his own borrowed identity? His Jewishness finds its intense expression in his public relation activities directed at the non-Jewish world around him. One of his chief concerns is what impression is he making on that world. Without faith in an abundance of righteous Gentiles he would indeed be nothing but "anti-anti."
Jews unique due to martyrology
We are now also able to understand the attitudes of the reviewer of the story about pastor Andre Trocme and of the professor whose subject is the Holocaust. The only way to understand the martyrology of the Jewish people, of which -- what has been called -- the Holocaust, is only its most recent phase, is to recognize in it the uniqueness of the Jewish people. This martyrology is due to the response of the nations to the reality and its significance that the irrepressible existence of the Jewish people represents in the world. The Christian world especially has been unable to make peace with it. In this generation, history's great challenge to the Jews is to understand the nature and meaning of their uniqueness and to accept it. The Holocaust calls us to self-understanding. The Holocaust also directs our attention to a problem that, thus far, has received little or no attention, i.e., how is it to be explained that over long centuries, especially in the Western world, the nations reacted to the existence of the Jewish people with a form of sadistic cruelty which to call beastly would be an insult to the animal world. It is exactly this, the uniqueness of the Jewish people, that the assimilationist Jew cannot accept. It makes no difference whether he lives in the Diaspora and denies that the Jews are a people; indeed, denies that there is such a thing as a Diaspora, or that he is a nationalistic Israeli, but denies vehemently that the Jews are a people different from all other nations. In either case, the Jews could not have been singled out for slaughter as Jews; for had they been so treated it would have meant that they were indeed different. What happened to them is happening to others too. Since we are a nation like all the other nations, it is impossible for us to be any better than they are. Therefore, "have we really the right to cast stones?" This however, may leave one with a rather uncomfortable feeling. If we are not better than the others, are we, too, that bad? So we conclude that the others are not really that bad. Think of the many periods during which Jews lived in peace and comfort among the nations. Thus, not only the history of the Holocaust is being rewritten, but by relegating the martyrology of the Jewish people into hardly visible corner, the entire moral history, especially of the Western world, is embellished and falsified. The attitude will serve ill, Jew and Gentile alike.
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