The many Holocausts of the Jews
The memory of the industrial extermination of European Jewry unifies the fractured Jewish world as nothing else can – and confers a desperate significance on what divides us
At 10 a.m. on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli Jews come to a stand-still. Drivers stop their vehicles on the highway when the memorial siren sounds throughout this small country. Schools time their own ceremonies and assemblies to coincide with that nationwide moment of shared silence.
The nearly ubiquitous observance of this act of commemoration by Israel’s six million Jews makes that moment of silence one of the most widely observed of all Jewish rituals. Commentators sometimes point to this rare example of Jewish unity as a response to the grisly immutability with which humans were categorized and exterminated by the Nazis. The Holocaust was too big — too sweeping, too comprehensive in its ambition to criminalize the act of being a living Jew — to suffer the narrow bickering that characterizes the other culture wars of the Jews.
Yet the memory of the dead — who were too numerous, and murdered with too much grim purpose, to allow any Jews who lived afterward the comfort of psychological distance — lends a primordial power to the contradictory ways that Jews understand the meaning of the slaughter.
The Holocaust may be vast, both in its historical reality and in the way its memory looms over the present — as the social critic Theodor Adorno famously put it, no one “whose organ of experience has not entirely atrophied” can believe “that the world after Auschwitz, that is, the world in which Auschwitz was possible, is the same world as it was before.” But it is still ultimately a human experience, doomed to shape the intuitions and identities of those who come after.
This is itself a horror. The unbearable human reality of the Holocaust – try to bear the thought of the six final minutes of life granted to the shivering, naked children herded by the SS’s emaciated Jewish slaves into the gas chambers before the Zyklon B gas finished its work; now repeat the attempt hundreds of thousands of times – has suffered the ignominious fate of all remembered agonies: it has turned into a story.
Or, rather, many stories, each given a kind of absolutist urgency by the scale of the suffering they try to explain.
In the early 1950s, a young, impoverished and embattled State of Israel debated how it should commemorate the genocide, which was still too fresh to be encapsulated by the familiar narratives told to Jewish children today.
For the religiously minded survivors of Europe, the extermination of European Jewry was different only in scope, not in essence, from the catastrophes of the Jewish past – the Roman conquest of Judea, the expulsion from Spain. They sought to commemorate the gassed children of Auschwitz on Tisha B’Av, the late-summer fast day that Jewish tradition associates with these foundational disasters.
To Israeli Jews of that generation – nearly all of them refugees in one sense or another, nearly all of them heirs to the Herzlian warning that the growth of European mass-societies and nationalistic identities leaves no room for minorities – the Holocaust is the final catastrophic proof that the ancient Jewish strategy of long-suffering resilience is ill-equipped to survive an age of murder by totalitarian bureaucracies. The pogroms of the late 19th century, under whose pressure the early Zionists coalesced into a movement, were no longer a danger to just some Jews; technological innovation transformed the pogrom impulse into an existential danger for all Jews.
The Zionists, too, saw in the Holocaust a kind of continuity. German bureaucratic ability, not ideological innovation, allowed this “pogrom” to murder six million instead of six thousand.
The thing worth knowing about the Holocaust, then, is not that Jews died, but that Jews, at least some of them, at least some of the time, resisted.
The remembrance day’s official name, from its founding in 1953, is “Day of Remembrance for the Holocaust and the Heroism.” In the 1950s, the “the” that preceded “heroism” pointed to a specific heroism – not of the victims who struggled to maintain their dignity in the face of extermination, but of those who fought back, who grasped even in the depths of despair the Zionist ethos that history is changed not through acceptance of one’s fate, but through action.
The seculars won the debate over the calendar. Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day was moved 13 days later to the 27th of Nissan, but this shift, which avoids a conflict with the holiday of Passover that begins on the 15th, only highlights the Zionist story. Holocaust Remembrance Day now comes a week before the remembrance day for Israel’s war dead, and eight days before Israel’s independence day on the 5th of Iyar. Just as the week-long holiday of Passover reenacts the Biblical exodus from slavery to religious redemption at Sinai, so the week from 27 Nissan to 5 Iyar reenacts the passage of the Jews from their diasporic role as the paradigmatic victims of the inexhaustible human capacity for cruelty to their new condition, a self-reliant nation that obtains its safety and freedom through its own exertions.
For Israelis, the vow of “never again” is essentially a strategic vision. The Jewish victims of Auschwitz were not the only universally applicable symbols to emerge from the death camps; so were the Nazi perpetrators. The very fact that the Nazis existed means Nazis can exist, do exist, and will exist in the future. Some deride Israelis as living in “post-trauma” from the Holocaust, as too ready to see Nazis reincarnated in every critic of Israel. This sort of reductionist mockery is drowned out by the continued tolerance of mass-murder even on the part of the most liberal of Westerners. Rwanda, Syria, Congo, Sudan – all acts of systematic murder that for all their diversity of context and cause share one important characteristic with the Holocaust: they reveal the lie at the heart of liberal-minded talk about “shared humanity” or “international community.”
Yet such talk makes up the third major Jewish story about the Holocaust.
For Western liberals, including many of the world’s English-speaking Jews, “never again” is an ethos not of self-reliance or the need to buttress one’s own defenses, but of the unfathomably high costs of immorality and moral compromises, and of the lack of tolerable alternatives to the pursuit of liberal values.