This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
This week marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Most likely it is the last time that many survivors of Auschwitz will be alive to mourn the dead they left behind. Coming as it does within the context of the recent massacre in France, world leaders are also attending in large numbers. Including among these leaders are the president of France and the prime minister of Germany.
Yesterday’s New York Times features an article on this commemoration and the changes that Auschwitz is undergoing as the surviving generation comes to an end. The change is momentous as described by Andrze Kacorzyk, deputy director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum:
We find this to be a moment of passage. A passing of the baton. It is younger generations publicly accepting the responsibility that they are ready to carry this history on behalf of the survivors, and to secure the physical survival of the place where they suffered.
In practical terms, Auschwitz is to be transformed from a memorial site to an educational museum. The next generation will know no survivors and will be unable to hear from them personally. They will have to be educated in the Holocaust in a different way to become the new torch bearers of the lessons of the Holocaust.
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, is featured throughout the Times article on the importance of educating the young about the Holocaust:
It is very hard to pass the baton to a new generation, people who are living in different circumstances in a new century. Your parents may want to pass the torch to you, but it is hard to take up the cause of their life. And in many cases now, we are talking about the grandchildren of survivors.
Auschwitz is important because it was ground zero of what the Nazis did. And it is important because anti-Semitism is like a virus. You think it goes away but then it’s coming back. Right now, it is coming back very strongly.
Lauder here is referring to the “outbreaks of anti-Semitism across Europe” which he believes will help galvanize future generations on the lessons of the Holocaust.
Perhaps it will, but the question unasked by Lauder, the Auschwitz museum officials and the Times is in what direction future generation, Jewish and otherwise, will be galvanized.
The Times may have already raised this question in their recent book review of Anita Shapira’s biography of David Ben-Gurion. Reviewing the biography, Ilene Prusher has this to say about Shapira’s handling of Ben-Gurion’s role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948:
Some readers may find it hard, as I did, to read Shapira’s brief treatment of the moment in 1948 when the commanders Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin came to Ben-Gurion asking whether to carry out “a large-scale population evacuation.” Rabin reported that Ben-Gurion responded with a wave of the hand, saying “Expel them.” Shapira explains here that while he forbade the evacuation of some areas, like Nazareth, “like most of his ministers, he saw the Arabs’ exodus as a great miracle, one of the most important in that year of miracles, since the presence of a hostile population constituting some 40 percent of the new state’s total populace did not augur well for the future.”
Shapira doesn’t subject this incident to any ethical scrutiny or judgment, reporting it almost matter-of-factly. She does, however, note that given the history of the time — which included moving enormous masses of people across Europe and carrying out huge population transfers as part of the partition that divided Pakistan from India — Ben-Gurion’s decision wasn’t beyond the norm. “The decision not to allow the return of the Arab refugees was accepted as self-evident, and gained broad public support.”
I doubt there will be any reference to Ben Gurion’s decision or Rabin’s participation in the Nakba at the Auschwitz commemoration. I doubt, too, that the momentous change ahead in the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum will deal with the Nakba or Jewish culpability in this ongoing event.
The lessons of Auschwitz have gone unheeded. Most would agree. But the issue remains: What are the lessons of Auschwitz for future generations?
Thinking of the Nazis and Ben-Gurion, of the Holocaust and the Nakba, for Jews at least, the primary unlearned lesson is that Jews now live after what happened to Jews in the Holocaust. Jews also live with the reality of an ongoing Nakba perpetrated by Jewish Israelis with the support of many Jews around the world.
The Holocaust is decisive for Jewish identity. The Nakba is too.
Can this Holocaust/Nakba lesson be incorporated into the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum without minimizing the Holocaust? Or does the continuing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians simply raise the stakes of Auschwitz, demand a renewed encounter with the suffering caused by unjust power in anyone’s hands, including Jews?
Holocaust and the Nakba. Holocaust and Israel. On the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz, the lessons remain.