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The 9th of Av and the Holocaust

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In his book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Tony Judt describes in detail how virtually every European state simply refused to acknowledge the Holocaust openly or to purge its society of the perpetrators.

All kinds of different reasons are given, such as the guilt of those who participated directly or indirectly in the Nazi evil. France tried to rewrite history and pretend that what happened to the Jews was the fault of the Nazis, even though Vichy introduced laws and sent Jews to death without the Nazis even asking. Poles massacred returning Jews, and Communist states treated the Holocaust exclusively as an anti-Communist tragedy, shorn of its Jewish dimension. The British and the Americans were so busy fighting the Soviet threat they, too, played down the catastrophe and employed Nazis.

I recall, as a child, my father giving me a book by Lord Russell of Liverpool with graphic photos of Bergen-Belsen at liberation. But soon it disappeared from bookstores. It took many years before German writers like Grass began publicly to seek to exorcise the past. Both Germany and Austria were happy to have ex-Nazis as presidents.

We now know from many different sources how survivors simply refused to talk, either because they wanted to forget the horrors or because they were so busy building a new life they simply wanted to look, and go, forward. Although many Israeli politicians used the Holocaust to justify its existence, Israel itself treated survivors with disdain because its modern fighting ethos wanted to repudiate the passivity of Eastern European Jewry. Only the Warsaw Ghetto fighters were honored. Indeed, the treatment of Holocaust survivors in Israel to this day remains a scandal.

It was not until the public and highly controversial trial of Eichmann in 1961 that things began to change. The Six Day War was a catalyst too, because for the first time Jews around the world felt able to assert their pride. It is hard for anyone nowadays to appreciate how radical a change this victory made for European and, indeed, Russian Jews. For the first time I felt comfortable walking the streets with my kippah visible.

Most modern Jews had always tried to find a way of expressing their Jewish identity without having to be too religious. Zionism was the obvious choice. You could give money; feel good without having to change the way you lived. The reaction against Israel, as the memories of ’67 began to pale, led to Zionism losing some of its allure. Now the Holocaust became the substitute. Books, memorials, museums flooded the Western world. Laws were passed outlawing Holocaust denial. The hope was this would somehow act as an antidote to genocide or anti-Semitism. If in some areas it has, in others, sadly the contrary is true.

Israel initiated two Holocaust memorial days, one by the state and the other by the Rabbinate. On the other hand, the Charedi world gives added weight to the 9th of Av that commemorates the destruction of two Temples, two Jewish states, and the massacre of half of the Jewish population, treating it as the day it mourns those it lost in the Holocaust. They argue that the Holocaust was just the culmination of the “vale of tears” that is exile. Despite everything that has happened in the Land of Israel, we are still in a state of spiritual exile and mourning. Our alienation can only be removed by the Messiah. Their opposition to the Knesset-decreed memorial and that of the state rabbanut is that both are unnecessary. One should bolster existing custom, as indeed happened when the rabbis of the Talmud decided to put the two destructions of Jerusalem and its Temples, which happened on different days, together.

There is a legitimate debate as to whether the Holocaust was just the culmination, with the technology and logistic commands of modern states, of an ancient hatred. Or whether it was something unique, sui generis, and should be remembered as such.

The Charedi world resists the criticism that it does not observe state memorials and the accusation of not taking the memory of the Holocaust seriously. No one, they say, as an identifiable group within Judaism, suffered greater losses than they. What answers Hitler better than restoring to overflowing the fountains of Eastern European Jewry so drastically destroyed, and by increasing tenfold the birthrate of the Jewish people, whom the Nazis hoped to exterminate? Who is doing more for the survival of the Jewish people spiritually, they or those who pay lip service to the negativity of a memorial but ignore the true victory of Jewish religious survival? (I would feel happier about such an argument if they were also taking practical steps, like fighting in an army of defense.)

Frankly, I do incorporate all our suffering into the fast. But I am reminded of the reason the rabbis give for the destructions. We brought them upon ourselves. To me, the message of Tisha B’Av lies most of all in its commemoration of sinat chinam (needless hatred). And, sadly, all points of the Jewish spectrum are as guilty of this today as they ever have been. What is the purpose of memorials, Holocaust or religious, if they change nothing?

2 thoughts on “The 9th of Av and the Holocaust

  1. Please excuse the length of this response and a bit of rambling nature to it.

    The Holocaust was never anything I could ignore. Growing up with a grandfather who was a WWII veteran who helped to take some of the camps, who lived in that time in his mind from the war onward, whose memory of those years was more clear than what he had for breakfast, it was always apparent.

    He told me in graphic detail of the sights and especially the smells. Bodies he repeatedly described as “stacked like cord wood as far as you could see”. Bodies which appeared not to be rotting but merely impossibly emaciated like flesh stretched over bones, but stinking like roadkill. And then there was the smell like a barbecue but not. A horrible burnt smell. The smell of burnt hair and flesh.

    I heard the stories from before I could write and before I could speak well enough to converse. A toddler.

    I cannot conceive of a G-d who would visit that upon anyone. Ever. It defies any possible reason for our existence. It makes G-d out to be a temperamental sadist. No, I will never believe such a thing. G-d loves. Man kills.

    Bad things happen to good people at times. There are junctures in history when moves which could not have been seen as bad moves yet occur. Decisions made on faith, good will, good intentions.

    In the case of the Holocaust, it was because so many Jews had in the wake of the scattering by the Romans moved out through the Slavic and European lands alongside the spread of Christianity and later the Muslim conquests and the wars between them and Christendom. They ended up settling in what I refer to as “the trailer park of Christendom”. Where Christianity’s Orthodoxy was visited with sword and preacher upon various tribes and nations who came from a background of fearful mysticism, pantheism, animism, and superstition, many of whom were warrior peoples.

    Add the story of their newly sold to them savior being killed by reticent Romans on the orders of disbelieving Jews and nothing good is coming of it.

    Many of the Jews who came into the lands were tradesmen and merchants and as we’ve seen in human history many times before such as in South Africa, when the newcomers do well and the locals do not, the locals will hate the newcomers for their success and their own lack thereof. Of supreme tragic irony is that in many places Jews were recruited specifically to help the economy.

    Antisemitism was a forgone conclusion. Caught between western Europe which didn’t want them and Russia which didn’t want any more of them than they already had, Jews were stuck in the intellectual low-rent district where bad ideas like baseless hatred can thrive. Hitler wasn’t an accident. He was a nexus waiting to happen and the victorious powers of WWI helped it along ironically by their bungling lack of understanding of the proper application of mercy.

    (There’s a reason ancient armies often slaughtered entire cities and villages as they conquered them. To prevent survivors and their successors from seeking vengeance and upsetting the new power arrangement. In our modern exercise of mercy unlike the ancients, we stopped short and let them live but that was it. When you defeat an enemy you must either destroy them utterly, or take them into your confidence and make them brothers. We failed to do that last very necessary part.)

    It wasn’t the sinat chinam of Jews. It was the sinat chinam of non Jews that brought it about and it isn’t as simple as blaming gentiles and holding they won’t and can’t understand Jews. It’s a matter of Jews and indeed everyone else understanding the true fact: there’s no such thing as baseless hatred.

    All hatreds have a base. That there’s no excuse or justification doesn’t make them baseless. A base for it needs not be justified. It only needs to be. Justification is beside the point. If it doesn’t logically naturally exist, they’ll rationalize one some other way to help silence conscience if they even hear it anymore.

    When we see that everyone’s hatreds have some base FROM THEIR POINT OF VIEW, when we can see the world from their point of view, we can then begin to find a way to unravel their hate by redirecting their intellectual and emotional processes.

    The way to stop a stampede is not to stand in its way. It’s to run up from behind on your horse, take the lead, and deviate from the course and lead the herd. You don’t move rivers by jumping into them. You dig a new course downhill following the terrain that merges and cut through the separation letting the water flow to the new course.

    Similarly, the way to end antisemitism isn’t to withdraw from the world or stand in the road in front of it, but engage the world and join the world, and plant new ideas that make more sense, and are easier to swallow, and counteract the bad ones. Ideas that play to human nature better than the bad ones.

    To put it politically: steal their thunder, redefine the terms of the debate, co-opt their ideas and beliefs, subvert their mindsets. But for the cause of good and decency and life. So that never ever again will such a bad thing happen to good people ever again.

    I have faith that it can be, and that it will be if we stay the course.

  2. Very interesting post. Thank you. I certainly agree about external, non-Jewish hatred, sinat chinam, but I am only quoting the rabbis of the Talmud about Jewish internal hatred!

    Similarly, I agree, the issue is not so much why God does not intervene as if He was the Sheriff or Superman, but why we humans do what we do.

    J

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