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Auschwitz revisited

Middle East
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In the week we have been commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz I have been trying to understand why I am so weary and wary of the Holocaust. Despite the undoubted emotional pull of the survivors’ testimonies, is there any lasting meaning be found in the ashes at Auschwitz? Should it even be looked for?

I didn’t always feel this way.

We recently moved house and a few weeks ago my older son and I were unpacking boxes of books and finding new homes for them. I noticed just how much reading I had done on the subject of the Holocaust, mostly more than twenty years ago.

I had straight histories like ‘The War Against the Jews’ by Lucy Dawidowicz and ‘Holocaust’ by Martin Gilbert. I’d read ‘Last Waltz in Vienna’ by George Clare, Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’, ‘Europa, Europa’ by Solomon Perel and Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’, and ‘The Drowned and the Saved’. There were Art Spiegelman’s graphic novels ‘Maus’, where Nazis and Jews become cats and mice. Ghetto accounts such as ‘A Cup of Tears’ by Abraham Lewin and Marek Edelman’s ‘The Ghetto Fights’. I remembered being completely absorbed by Theo Richmond’s detailed account of the destruction of one tiny shtetl village ‘Konin’. I had the complete transcript of Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah. Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in the 1950s. And of course, Anne Frank’s diary, the fully annotated critical edition.

My reading had been a search for meaning – historical, political and theological. I had been trying to make sense of something I knew was shaping my adult Jewish identity.

Last weekend I visited my 88-year-old father and asked him to recall for me the visit he made to Auschwitz in the late 1960s while on a business trip to Poland. Perhaps his account could restore my faith in the possibility of finding a purpose in the week’s commemorations beyond honouring the memory of the dead.

My father’s visit to the death camp took place in a very different world from today. For the first two decades after the war the mood had been for moving on, for forgetting not remembering. The Holocaust was very far from being the defining event of the Second World War it has now become.

While he was on his trip, my father and three work colleagues found themselves with time on their hands when a public holiday was announced to coincide with a Soviet Russian State visit. Their local client, the factory manager of a smelt works in Katowice, suggested they visited Auschwitz, which he explained now ran as a museum.

Although my father was familiar with the name Auschwitz, he told me his knowledge of the how the Nazis had implemented their killing was vague and sketchy at the time of his visit to Poland. Two of his colleagues had served in the army during the war but their understanding was even less than my father’s. So the four British businessmen hired a driver and set off for the day with little or no expectation of what they were about to see.

They reached Auschwitz less than an hour after leaving Katowice and found the camp/museum almost deserted despite the public holiday. In fact, my father and his colleagues seemed to be the only visitors there and were rewarded with a personal tour by one of the senior officials.

They were taken to long wooden huts sectioned off into large glass-fronted display cases. Inside the first display were bails of material that my father could not identify. “What is this?” He asked. “Human hair” came the reply, “shaved from the heads of those about to be exterminated.” Nothing went to waste, it was explained, “The hair could be weaved into cloth and used for insulation”. Next came a display of walking sticks and crutches neatly stacked in huge piles. Then shoes, all sizes, suitcases still with name and home address labels attached, spectacles and false teeth. Apparently, it all had revenue potential for the Third Reich.

After three hours of the tour my father was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the attitude of their guide. “He was more interested in the Nazis’ attention to detail, administrative diligence and mechanical ingenuity than in the morality of what had taken place there.” Finally, they were taken to see the furnaces that burned day and night, fueled by human corpses.

But what had been new and revelatory to my father nearly fifty years ago has become burdensome and problematic to me. When I look at all the books on my shelves relating to just 12 years out of three thousand years of Jewish history, I have no desire to revisit them or even flick through the pages.

As a student I had thought there were lessons to be learnt and meaning to be divined from what had happened. But now it feels as if the event has been used, abused and politicised, and, from a moral perspective, largely ignored.

As time has passed I have become increasingly pessimistic about our ability to take something meaningful and positive from the horror that is now summed up by the single word ‘Auschwitz’.

Some, especially the remaining survivors, see denial and forgetfulness of the Holocaust as the biggest concern we should have. But I think these are the least of our Holocaust problems.

Holocaust denial will remain a fringe issue. The documentation is secure in its veracity and overwhelming in its volume. If anything, today’s school children are in danger of thinking that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin went to war against Hitler because of what was happening to the Jews.

And we have become very good at remembering. We do it with great care and respect and afford enormous dignity to the survivors and their testimonies. This week’s marking of the Russian army’s liberation of Auschwitz proved this once again. So, we remember with no difficulty. It’s acting on the remembrance that defeats us.

Since the end of the Second World War we have had Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. All of which suggest that despite the creation of so much international law on human rights and genocide, humankind has not progressed an iota as a result of Auschwitz.

I can now see that my own long-term reaction to the Holocaust has led me not to focus on anti-Semitism and Jewish security (although neither can be ignored) but on the values and teaching that I see as central to Judaism. Justice, Compassion, Humility, individual and collective Responsibility. These are not new lessons but very old ones. As a Jew, I choose to apply these to our relationship with the Palestinian people because this is the issue on which we must judge ourselves. In the 21st century this is ‘the Jewish question’.

While a growing number of Jews both in Israel and around the world share this perspective, it is still a minority opinion.

When it comes to the Palestinian people, the Holocaust has hardened our hearts and closed our minds. The scale of our own suffering has made us blind to their suffering – which we see as all of their own making.

Perhaps this was inevitable. Why should a people abused and broken become saints? The opposite result is more often the outcome. I am asking for too much. Expecting something that no group is capable of.

And so I have become both weary and wary of trying to take meaning or lessons from the Holocaust. Yes, we must continue to teach it as an appalling stain on humanity. And an exercise in empathy is never wasted. But we must not expect it to unlock the human heart.

Maybe all we have are the stories of bureaucratised murder, random survival, and unexpected acts of kindness that Primo Levi called ‘Moments of Reprieve’.

My father and his colleagues had planned to eat a meal together that night back at the hotel in Katowice. But after the visit nobody was hungry.

On the return journey my father asked their driver if he had known about the camp during the war. “Oh, yes”, he replied. “We knew something was happening. We could smell it.” My father asked him whether anyone at the time felt they could do anything about it? The driver replied “Yes, we would wind up the windows tight, so we couldn’t smell the stink”.

This piece first appeared on Cohen’s site, Micah’s Paradigm Shift. See also Cohen’s post, A Letter to Anne Frank.

Robert Cohen
About Robert Cohen

Cohen is a British writer. He blogs at Micah's Paradigm Shift.

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36 Responses

  1. bintbiba
    January 30, 2015, 11:50 am

    Mr Robert Cohen !

    Great respect. Words fail me.

  2. pabelmont
    January 30, 2015, 12:12 pm

    Yes, the holocaust (in such cases named “The Holocaust”) is used by Israel as a distraction of attention from what it is doing and has already done to Palestinians. It is used to clear away any moral scruples that Jews or others may feel w.r.t. I/P. Thus it is indeed time to give it a rest.

    • American
      January 31, 2015, 6:39 pm

      I still havent gotten over the ‘coffee table book’ with the single word Jew repeated 6 million times. Crass and goulish commerical cashing in on the holocaust.

      • Doubtom
        January 31, 2015, 11:23 pm

        There’s no question that the holocaust has become an ‘industry’ as many have pointed out. This constant reminder to the world at large that the Jews have been oppressed is wearing thin on a world. Hardly a year goes by that some organized remembrance of this atrocity isn’t visited on the world and on the American populace in particular.
        The holocaust is NOT by any stretch, the most vile example of man’s inhumanity to man. There have been many worse cases but none as well advertised as the holocaust. I see Wolf Blitzer is scheduled to head yet another program devoted to the holocaust. It’s time to say enough to this indiscriminate pummeling of the world over this historical event. It’s time as well, to stop using the holocaust as a justification for every misdeed and crime of Israel.

      • Mooser
        February 1, 2015, 10:57 am

        “The holocaust is NOT by any stretch, the most vile example of man’s inhumanity to man.”

        Can we just call it a three-way tie, or do we go into a sudden-death overtime?

  3. Theo
    January 30, 2015, 1:48 pm

    As I watched the motion pictures taken 70 years ago, I got tears in my eyes, although have seen them many times before. Not even a vicious animal would do such things and anyone denying the holocaust must be an imbecile.
    It is true that Auschwitz and Treblinka were the main compounds where the nazis killed mostly jews, however they had hundreds of others all over occupied Europe, where the majority were not jews, but gypsies, christians and other religions and their numbers are much higher than the jewish lives destroyed.
    I would like to see only once that all dead will be equally mourned, not only the jewish ones, they all have the same value.

    • Mayhem
      January 31, 2015, 4:44 pm

      No other group faced the uniquely horrific threat of total annihilation. The Nazis particularly wanted to rid the planet of every single Jew. Despite the fact the genocide continues to occur the lessons and message from what happened to the Jews stand out as a special reminder and should not be diminished by others pushing their own barrows.

      • American
        January 31, 2015, 7:00 pm

        Mayhem January 31, 2015, 4:44 pm

        No other group faced the uniquely horrific threat of total annihilation

        Obviously you’ve never heard of Rwanda.
        Or that Stalin killed more Russians than Germany killed Jews.
        You arent special, there have been many groups threaten with annihilation thruout history.

      • Citizen
        January 31, 2015, 8:23 pm

        Only 10% of Roma survived the Nazis time and place.

      • Mooser
        January 31, 2015, 8:41 pm

        “Despite the fact the genocide continues to occur the lessons and message from what happened to the Jews stand out as a special reminder and should not be diminished by others pushing their own barrows.”

        But for Mayhem, a wheel-barrow loaded with 6 million Jewish corpses is an easy push.
        It almost seems like it always rolling downhill! After all, none of those 6 million will ever intermarry, become Reform, or leave the religion. Or become anti-Zionist in any way, shape or form! That lightens the hell out of the load.
        Plus, they may be corpses, but they have the wonderful ability to keep their mouths shut, unlike some of the survivors.

        But thanks, Mayhem, for making it so clear the Holocaust is just a commodity, something to be sold from a push-cart.

      • eljay
        January 31, 2015, 10:36 pm

        >> Mayhemeee: No other group faced the uniquely horrific threat of total annihilation.

        Now, now, let’s not forget the uniquely horrific threat of total annihilation faced by the Amalekites, who were totally annihilated by “the Jews”.

        >> The Nazis particularly wanted to rid the planet of every single Jew.

        But they did not succeed, unlike “the Jews” who managed to rid the planet of every single Amalekite.

        >> Despite the fact the genocide continues to occur the lessons and message from what happened to the Jews stand out as a special reminder and should not be diminished by others pushing their own barrows.

        The special reminder to all people, societies and nations should be that the pursuit of justice, equality and accountability, universally and consistently applied, is both a legal and moral imperative.

        Unfortunately, that reminder is greatly diminished by Zio-supremacists pushing their own barrow of Jewish supremacism in an oppressive, colonialist, expansionist and religion-supremacist “Jewish State”.

      • Brewer
        February 1, 2015, 12:00 am

        No other group faced the uniquely horrific threat of total annihilation

        Despite the probable inaccuracy of this statement, I can’t help wondering how one should react to it. If it were true, should it induce us to modify our behaviour?
        Are we to deduce from it that Jews, apart from the victims, are somehow more deserving of sympathy, forbearance or charity than any other people (or any individual for that matter) who have been victims of tragedy?
        Is there some special way I should treat my neighbour, a descendant of Jews who arrived in the 1800s during the Central Otago Gold Rush? Up ’till now I’ve been treating him like any other Kiwi. Put yourself in his place Mayhem and give me your advice. You see, I can’t claim close losses resulting from WWII apart from a couple of uncles (one of whom survived the death march across Northern Poland losing teeth and hair which never returned) so I don’t know how he feels about being one of “a group who faced the uniquely horrific threat of total annihilation”. I’ve been treating him pretty much as I treat my cousins.

      • RoHa
        February 1, 2015, 12:14 am

        “No other group faced the uniquely horrific threat of total annihilation.”

        I’m sure that thought was a great comfort to the people in Nanking.

        “Well, they may be raping and slaughtering everyone in sight, but so far total annihilation of Chinese doesn’t seem on the cards. Ouch. That bayonet hurts.”

      • almostvoid
        February 1, 2015, 3:28 am

        you obviously didn’t research very far. the nazis hated just about everybody with the same murderous intent. that started in january 1933 and was inflicted [self inflicted?] by-on the germans of all walks of life just about. then they spread to the rest of europe and those people be they dutch or french were murdered. even italians. FUI.

      • Mooser
        February 1, 2015, 11:00 am

        “Are we to deduce from it that Jews, apart from the victims, are somehow more deserving of sympathy, forbearance or charity than any other people”

        Of course! If genocide only happens to Jews, everybody should be sympathetic! They really should. But if genocide only really happens to Jews, there’s no need for anybody else to worry much about it, is there?

      • Brewer
        February 1, 2015, 4:01 pm

        Its a bit like the “My Dad’s got a bigger one than your Dad” argument found in institutions of higher learning.
        Just about as edifying too.

      • eljay
        February 2, 2015, 7:47 am

        >> RoHa: I’m sure that thought was a great comfort to the people in Nanking.

        And to the Tutsi of Rwanda. According to Wiki:

        During the approximate 100-day period from April 7, 1994, to mid-July, an estimated 500,000–1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, constituting as much as 20% of the country’s total population and 70% of the Tutsi then living in Rwanda.

        70% of the Tutsi living in Rwanda were slaughtered in a 100-day period. But Mayhemeee says “No other group faced the uniquely horrific threat of total annihilation.” Invective! >:-(

      • RoHa
        February 3, 2015, 1:29 am

        Contrary to popular belief, eljay, the Tasmanian aborigines were not completely annihilated.
        But then, neither were the Jews.

  4. Keith
    January 30, 2015, 6:03 pm

    “If anything, today’s school children are in danger of thinking that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin went to war against Hitler because of what was happening to the Jews.”

    Indeed, Holocaust “education” is a mandatory part of the high school curriculum in several European countries. Needless to say, the curriculum dwells upon the Nazi holocaust rather than the many “holocausts” caused by European imperialism, some of which, such as the mass-murder in the East Congo, continue with Western support. I sometimes wonder what the results would be of an honest survey of high school students concerning casualties in World War II. I am sure that many would be aware of the 6 million Jewish deaths, but how many would know about the over 20 million Soviet deaths or the 60 million total deaths? Those with the power tell the story.

    • Citizen
      January 31, 2015, 3:41 am
    • JaapBo
      January 31, 2015, 5:07 am

      Why not complement “Holocaust” education with “Nakba” eduation? They are inextricably bound by the Zionist use of the former to justify the latter.

      Both were crimes committed by nationalistic ideologies that saw no place for another people in their midst.
      Both were genocides, as the Isreali ethnic cleansing destroyed about 70 percent of Palestinian society.

      • American
        January 31, 2015, 6:50 pm

        The Jewish holocaust should not be taught as a separate subject to begin with, except possibly in the jewish state——it belongs as a subject in world history courses with WWII.
        Just as black slavery belongs in American history.
        In fact if the point to teaching about holocaust is to prevent others then there should be a course taught that begins in ancient history and goes thru all the holocaust and slaughters and genocides humans have perpertrated —-students might learn something from that—-like how nothing has changed—-might stir a generation to actually do something about it—besides create laws that arent enforced.

      • Keith
        February 1, 2015, 1:32 pm

        AMERICAN- Well said and spot on.

  5. mijj
    January 31, 2015, 3:51 am

    it’s curious, isn’t it. People who are actually inflicted with personal suffering develop empathy for suffering in others. But those who feel they have “suffered” in a kind of abstract cultural, emotional osmosis have the opposite response .. they become calloused to that suffering in others – they tend to use “suffering” as a righteous banner and feel entitled to inflict it on others.

    In the history of Israeli suffering inflicted on Palestinians: has anyone who actually suffered in the Holocaust been directly responsible for inflicting suffering on Palestinians? My guess is those who are contemptuous about the suffering of the Palestinians are just as contemptuous of the actual individuals who actually suffered in the Holocaust .. only the cultural abstraction of “suffering” remains important. (I guess, if we admit that the suffering was inflicted on individuals, that’s an avenue for admitting that Palestinian individuals are suffering too – therefore, it has to be about cultural suffering, where, because of the magic number (6,000,000), Jewish suffering is much more important than Palestinian suffering, which can be regarded as insignificant.)

    • turveyd
      January 31, 2015, 12:50 pm

      I think that certainly those who suffered in the Holocaust have been directly responsible for inflicting suffering upon the Palestinians. The onslaught started immediately – vide Lydda, 1948, for example. There seems to be a hop-skip-and-jump from one to the other, insane though it seems, as in “When it comes to the Palestinian people, the Holocaust has hardened our hearts’. Wha-a? And I do wish apologist for the atrocities would own up, and stop using the first person plural. “We have hardened our hearts’ sounds much softer, almost lyrical and philosophical, than ‘I have hardened my heart’.

  6. Bornajoo
    January 31, 2015, 10:01 am

    Thanks for your honest article Robert Cohen

    @Kieth. Good point. I think there would be considerable ignorance regarding all other statistics from the second world war but everyone knows about the Holocaust

    I believe Norman Finkelstein got it spot on when he labelled it as an “industry” because that’s what is.

    I grew up next to some holocaust survivors in Stamford Hill who were very poor and lived in what can only be described as poverty. Yet billions and billions of dollars has been collected in their names and they’ve never seen a penny of it. And why does Israeli collect reparations for holocaust victims? That’s another disgrace

    When I was in Auschwitz (i popped in because I was working in Katowice about 8 years ago) I saw the same scenes as in Yoav Shamir’s film, Defamation.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen the film here is the link;

    Yoav Shamir – Defamation VOSE – subtitulado:

  7. RockyMissouri
    January 31, 2015, 11:36 am

    A fascinating article. Thank you for it. And brilliant and thoughtful comments. I can’t move beyond this article.

    And to think it still continues..

  8. American
    January 31, 2015, 6:13 pm

    Good article.
    But searching for ‘meaning’ in the holocaust in Germany or in any other of the holocaust in the world is useless—there is no great or profound meaning to be found in evil —except that humans are capable of evil.

    • Doubtom
      January 31, 2015, 11:35 pm

      Humans have also proven that they can profit from evil with this incessant concentration on the holocaust in particular.

      • almostvoid
        February 1, 2015, 3:29 am

        who? not the Israelis.

  9. Citizen
    January 31, 2015, 8:32 pm

    Only 10% of Roma survived the Nazi time and place.

  10. just
    February 1, 2015, 1:57 am

    Thank you.

  11. almostvoid
    February 1, 2015, 3:26 am

    the death camps were an obscenity. however we should focus on the obscenities of today. the article is timely.

  12. Neil Schipper
    Neil Schipper
    February 1, 2015, 5:19 am

    Yazidi militia makes public request for Israeli help | Jewish Telegraphic Agency

    (JTA) — An official in a militia organized by Iraq’s Yazidi minority has issued a public call for Israeli assistance.

    Lt. Col. Lukman Ibrahim, speaking to Al-Monitor, said the militia needs weapons and aid, and would like Israeli assistance so it can fight Islamic State, or ISIS. He said the Yazidis support Israel and fight similar enemies.

    Israel has yet to respond to the Yazidi request.

    The militia, with 12,000 members, was organized in August to defend against ISIS, which has persecuted and killed the minority since capturing Yazidi cities last year. Most of the fighters are untrained.

    “We appeal to the Israeli government and its leader to step in and help this nation, which loves the Jewish people,” Ibrahim was quoted as saying by Al-Monitor. “We would be most grateful for the establishment of military ties — for instance, the training of fighters and the formation of joint teams. We are well aware of the circumstances the Israelis are in, and of the suffering they have endured at the hands of the Arabs ever since the establishment of their state. We, too, are suffering on account of them.”

  13. ConstructiveMeme
    February 1, 2015, 9:25 pm

    Overexposure to Nazi atrocity stories in the media has probably caused more people to IGNORE anything having to do with that horrific period than anything else,

  14. Kathleen
    February 2, 2015, 8:30 am

    Robert so moving. So spot on. Thank you.

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