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Remembering Elie Wiesel, who inspired me to write about Palestine

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I learned of Wiesel’s death through Facebook, and immediately went searching in my old file drawer for a photograph. The photo shows my face, very young and fresh, between the faces of Elie Wiesel and Oprah. I had written an essay for a contest in which we were asked to apply the story of Night to a contemporary concern. My piece, 815 Words About a Crime, was about my own complicity in violence committed worldwide as I sat consuming luxuries in the US, and I worked hard to self-implicate. I receive $10,000 for the essay from Oprah and a co-sponsor– AT&T, I think. The money was for books, so I bought everything I could read on the occupation of Palestine.

The photograph is one I have returned to again and again because the more I learned about the author of Night, the more I found myself searching his face, his eyes, for some signal that would explain how such a gentle, assured character with a such a pleasant handshake could so vehemently support the massacre of my Palestinian neighbors and friends. The photograph is comical to me, partly because of the aggressive way Oprah is pulling my arm, partly because there was a makeup artist who spent time “whitening” my face before the shot, partly because I remember being told I was not allowed to ask my question of Elie Wiesel, which was of course about Palestine, and mostly because I still see no trace of the mans’ politics in his eyes — and also no trace of my own politics in my eyes.

On the day of Elie Wiesel’s death, I learned two lessons that makes the photograph more significant to me now.

Lesson 1: Memory is for the Future

I did not know that Elie Wiesel was responsible for codifying the one-to-one association of the word “holocaust” with the massacre of 11 million European “others,” 6 million of whom were Jews. Nor did I know that in reading his influential text, Night, in high school, I was part of that codification. I remember starting conversations with friends in college that went, “Remember the Holocaust?” as a basis for whatever argument came next. We shared a collective memory borrowed and embedded in our souls from the work of Weisel, and later Taussig, Hatley, Derrida, Camus, and Bakhtin, all of whom argued in one way or another that to forget is a crime.

So I remembered, conventionally, and without much attention to the memories that were made un-collective by their absence in my high school curriculum.

Weisel made my classmates and me into third-party witnesses. As young students, we are always third party witnesses to our teacher’s stories, the novels we read, etc. We were good at it. The great classics are exactly that — classic because they formulate a canon of collective memories. After reading The Grapes of Wrath, I was able to say I “remembered” the Great Depression. After reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I could say, “Remember Wounded Knee?” as a point of fact or common ground upon which my co-conversationalist and I might agree, using that memory to measure whatever thing we might be discussing.

So it did not surprise me as much as catch me off guard that the synonymy of Holocaust with Nazi mass murder (of Jews especially) was being shaped passively by an author with whom I identified personally. My memory was a newer-than-I-thought political activity. The lesson was this: big things are glacial, and collective memories are formed passively, through the subtlety of people who do not coin so much as codify words that index “memories.” The main obligation of authors writing about violence is to create in the reader a third-party witness.

Learning that Elie Wiesel had generated the synonymy between “holocaust” and the Holocaust caught my attention because I realized that a third party witness (bearer of collective memory) is a kind of witness I have failed to think about carefully as an important witness type, among the others I have been imagining. I have thought carefully about James Hatley’s articulation of witness, which in the case of the Holocaust, is a witness-survivor. Because of the centrifuge of collective association and memory with the Holocaust, the word witness is often assumed to mean this type, a witness-survivor, whose existence or testimony itself, is a kind of justice. But there are other kinds.

My friend Ross is a witness of the massacres in Fallujah in 2004 and 2008 because he is a perpetrator, not a survivor. When he gives testimony, people approach him as a witness-survivor: it is the dominant model of a witness. In fact his testimony and actions carry very different weight with very different obligations: as a perpetrator, Ross finds that testimony or existence is not enough. He owes reparations and retributive exchange with those he violated.

There are bystanders, too, who claim to arrive neutrally to scenes of mass violation. They are obliged to speak, but not on behalf of the victims or as victims. Their testimony is supposed to support and amplify the voices of those who cannot otherwise speak or who lack the platform to be heard when they do.

Witnessing is never simple, because witness-survivors, let alone the other kinds of witnesses, are never pure, never only victims, never innocent. For example, it is an uncomfortable topic to discuss the role of Jews who aided and abetted the processes of the Holocaust. What kind of witness do we call those people? In mulling over the kinds of witness one can play at different moments and for different reasons, I overlooked the most common kind of witness: the third party witness is a special kind because in a way it is much simpler than the complexities of first-hand complicity, engagement, and survivorship.

As a third party, a reader of Night, I am a witness because I am being told a story, and my job is simply to remember. The direct accusations a story might offer are third-hand, and no matter my political position or historical inheritances, memory is the most obvious tool for justice. If the witness-survivor is obliged to give testimony, the third-party witness must simply remember. But why? Presumably to recognize from the past iterations in the present, and to act.

Lesson 2: Actually Being a Third-Party Witness Means No Longer Being A Third-Party Witness

I did not know or care about Elie Wiesel, the man, when I absorbed his memories as my own in high school.

I was inspired to write about Palestine, seeing in his own testimony obvious parallels and lessons about acting upon the mandate of witnesses to insist: “never again.” I was young and did not realize that for all types of witnesses, there is the great risk of failing to see the wisdom of one’s own testimony. He taught me how incredibly contradictory people can be, and upon his death my Facebook friends, mostly Palestine liberation activists, spoke eloquently about his hypocrisy.

Around the day of his death, the city of Khalil (Hebron) was locked down completely. Power lines were destroyed in Gaza. Several Palestinian people were run over and killed by settlers. It was the two-year anniversary of Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s death, a child who had been forced to drink kerosene and was lit on fire by settlers. Images of barbed wire, open air prisons, checkpoints… they resemble the scenes described of the pre-holocaust architectures and social tensions in Europe.

One friend posted:

“Elie Wiesel was a Nobel Laureate and a holocaust survivor but he was also a hypocrite and a racist Zionist who supported settlement construction and the ethnic cleansing and oppression of the native Palestinians.”

And another posted:

“Elie Wiesel spoke about hatred except when it involved his own, personal commitments. he failed to live up to the vision he constructed in his personal career during his life … I wish he had been more moral and principled to denounce violence regardless if it is committed by Muslims, Christians and by Jews … he never denounced Israeli settler violence or spoke out in support of Palestinian rights the way he did for others.”

I agree with them both.

Elie Wiesel is not the first influential person to offer theoretical tools and cultural tropes helpful in articulating the cause for Palestinian liberation, only to deny their own writing and theoretical contributions to make an exception in the case of Israel. James Hatley and Emannuel Levinas, two of my favorite scholars of witnessing, facing, and the ethical obligations therein, fail their own ethical standards when it comes to Palestine. Levinas, when asked if Palestinians have “face” (his own term for approaching recognition of the other and human accountability) basically said, “No.”

So we have two contradictions: How can he be one of my favorite scholars? And how can he be such a hypocrite?

It is similar with Heideggar. His theories of time and temporality are foundational for my own thinking. But he was a horrible racist. Ghandi’s theories of nonviolent strategy are genius, but from what I have read in his biographies, he really was a total pervert. Great ideas usually come from flawed people, in part because the cost of great ideas and their articulation is the total abandonment of almost anything else. So, I can forgive Ghandi enough to quote him.

But the political betrayal of one’s own work is a layer of contradiction that captivates me in a more complex way. This is not about flawed people: this is about hypocrisy at its height. If I take seriously the whole body of Wiesel’s articulations, in books, quotes, interviews, and political gestures, then I have to see him as a man who advocated for the collective memory of his own people’s suffering, and utilized it strategically to dehumanize and justify the massacre of Palestinian people. I feel tricked, force-fed collective memories of the Holocaust at the expense of all other stories and memories. I want to reject his terms, his stories. I want to find a Big Lie in order to refuse the betrayal. Can I forgive him his contradictions enough to quote him at all?

On the other hand, perhaps I was wiser in my teenage years than I am now, to take his writing at face value, to let it escape its author, to leap from the page and hold me (and him) accountable to collective memory in its simplicity. Thanks to my ignorance and indifference to the man himself, and to my ignorance of the many memories made un-collective by neglect, it was still Elie Wiesel –maker of third party witnesses– who inspired me to write about Palestine.

His testimony is more powerful than he wanted it to be. Shouldn’t we use it?

Night: Cover art

Night: Cover art

He left me with an image of a boy— a collective boy, not himself, not me, but a kind of icon for innocence and innocence lost. I took it up when I was about 15, and carried it as a memory. A few years later, when I saw the same boy on a t-shirt in Ramallah and learned about this character called “Handala,” I recognized the sameness of that boy, the same urgency for a third-party witness like myself to leap into action as a witness of other orders. The little boy orphaned during the Holocaust, his survival at all odds to escape and bear witness, is no different than the icon of Handala, a child, tattered, exhausted, looking ahead, through barbed wire at the night sky.

I am called by that boy to bear witness in person; to honor his death when his is lit on fire; to visit him in Ofer prison when is his plucked from his bed at night by Israeli soldiers and interrogated; to meet him in refugee camps in Syria, in Iraq, and Lebanon, in Jordan; to share his many names and many stories everywhere I can.

Handala ~ Naji Al-Ali

Handala ~ Naji Al-Ali

I was called by that boy, because I recognized him from a memory. I remember him as I was asked to do by Elie Wiesel himself. The purpose of remembering him is to make sure I recognize him in the present tense, not only as a past visage. Instead of being a third party witness, I am called by Handala to take ethical responsibility beyond simply remembering the past. I must struggle against my own complicity in his ongoing violation, to struggle against injustice as his ally. I become obliged to write new testimonies, to make new third party witnesses of all those read my words.

And if Elie Wiesel was unable to recognize the same boy, shame on him. Witnesses are faulty. They are most faulty when they are witness-perpetrators, when they, leaning on their victimhood, absolve themselves of responsibilities to others.

How can I embrace my many roles as witness-survivor, witness-perpetrator, third-party witness?

Handala ~ Naji Al-Ali

Handala ~ Naji Al-Ali

I try to stand with Handala in the night: on the same side of the fence, on the opposite side of the fence, as maker of the fence, as destroyer of the fence… no matter how the barbed wire pricks me, makes me bleed, I am never absolved of accountability to Handala. I am not accountable to his author, or to his illustrator. I am accountable to Handala himself, the collective figure that I remember, recognize, and conjure.

We are given the stories we are given. I was given the Holocaust first, the Nakba second. It is the way Palestine came to me, it is how Handala and I were introduced. Elie Wiesel cannot stop that. I cannot change that. Witnesses cannot escape their roles, their leaky, complex positions.

Because of this, I think I will continue to quote Wiesel, in part because I know he contradicts himself and I hope to hold him accountable even in death. It is my duty to recognize and act upon the memories that prepare me for the present, even if the arbiters of those memories are unwilling.

“To forget is a crime,” he insisted. So I remember. And so we must act.

Kali Rubaii

Kali Rubaii is cofounder of the Islah Reparations Project. She works at UC Santa Cruz and Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA). A Phd candidate in Social Anthropology with a BA in International Relations, her dissertation focuses on the impact of occupation and counterinsurgency on rural communities in Iraq and Palestine.

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23 Responses

  1. just on July 5, 2016, 2:59 pm

    I was reading your article with great interest, and then this stopped me dead in the process:

    “Ghandi’s theories of nonviolent strategy are genius, but from what I have read in his biographies, he really was a total pervert. Great ideas usually come from flawed people, in part because the cost of great ideas and their articulation is the total abandonment of almost anything else. So, I can forgive Ghandi enough to quote him. ”

    I’m aghast at that bit. I have read extensively about and from Gandhi. You are stating your opinion (flawed though it may be) , and passing judgement and libel on a man that you have never met (unlike Weisel).

    It is just so magnaminous of you that you can “forgive” this man called Gandhi and deign to “quote him”. I wonder why you felt it necessary to write that bit above?

    I do appreciate your article, FOSNA, and wish you luck and continued enlightenment with your dissertation.

    • Stephen Shenfield on July 5, 2016, 4:51 pm

      What Kali probably has in mind is Gandhi’s practice as an elderly man of sleeping in the same bed with naked women (one of them his 18-year-old grand-niece) in order to test his ability to withstand sexual temptation. One of those who criticized him for this was his own Congress colleague and future prime minister Nehru.

      Gandhi had other shortcomings. His belief in the caste system was hidden in his English-language writings but clearly expressed in the articles he wrote in Gujarati. (This was pointed out by Dr. Ambedkar, who initiated the freedom movement of the untouchables.)

      • just on July 5, 2016, 5:09 pm

        Thanks, Stephen~ I was aware.

        (I still think that it’s an opinion unworthy of mention in this otherwise excellent essay. jmho)

      • WH on July 5, 2016, 5:51 pm

        He also expressed contempt for Africans.

      • RoHa on July 5, 2016, 10:56 pm

        I would really like to test myself more often.

    • Amy1 on August 20, 2016, 10:57 pm

      I find it quite surprising that you have read from Gandhi and still believe its a libel to refer to him as deeply flawed or even a pervert. I don’t know where your from but most westerners have no real concept of Gandhi’s political opinions beyond his support for nonviolence. There are reasons for it as well and one important reason is that they don’t understand the Indian society in which he lived. I am from the same region therefore I understand how dangerous his open advocacy of casteism was and still is. I wont call him a pervert for his sexual inclinations since that’s a personal matter but if you heard any person on the street saying stuff even twice as diluted compared to what Gandhi said he or she would immediately be referred to as a racist and an ethnic chauvinist but since it’s Gandhi his reputation precedes his merits and excuses are offered. I haven’t met the Israeli settlers either but I know enough from the documented evidence that they are bullies backed by their state. If you know the real Gandhi (by the way my grandfather did meet him not that meeting someone is the ultimate proof) you won’t be criticizing others passing honest judgments on him that anyone who rises above stifling political correctness is bound to.

  2. annie on July 5, 2016, 4:17 pm

    The little boy orphaned during the Holocaust, his survival at all odds to escape and bear witness, is no different than the icon of Handala, a child, tattered, exhausted, looking ahead, through barbed wire at the night sky.

    I am called by that boy to bear witness in person; to honor his death when his is lit on fire; to visit him in Ofer prison when is his plucked from his bed at night by Israeli soldiers and interrogated; to meet him in refugee camps in Syria, in Iraq, and Lebanon, in Jordan; to share his many names and many stories everywhere I can.

    I was called by that boy, because I recognized him from a memory. I remember him as I was asked to do by Elie Wiesel himself. The purpose of remembering him is to make sure I recognize him in the present tense

    searing commentary w/the dual graphics of Naji Al-Ali’s handala and the night cover art — images dominated by barbed wire.

    and this:

    I was given the Holocaust first, the Nakba second. It is the way Palestine came to me, it is how Handala and I were introduced. Elie Wiesel cannot stop that. I cannot change that. Witnesses cannot escape their roles, their leaky, complex positions.

    ouch — so excellent. thanks kali, one of the best tributes to wiesel i have ever read. he will never escape his legacy, it will follow him as long as memory of him persists — as a witness.

  3. Stephen Shenfield on July 5, 2016, 4:54 pm

    Primo Levi, who also survived Auschwitz and wrote brilliant books about the experience, did protest against Israeli war crimes in Lebanon.

  4. DaBakr on July 5, 2016, 5:13 pm

    The writing is eloquent. Moreso them most mw guests. There have always been and always will be those who desire to take on those who have attained the status as humanitarian giants. There were many who despised Abraham Lincoln and wrote about it after his death. Kennedy haters abound as do so many others who wait until death to explain their objections about the deceased. (Though I have never read a thorough discrediting of Nobel prize winner Yassir Arafat, hero to Palestinians the world over by a Palestinian the way so many Jews have pointed out Weisels flaws)

    But,. I don’t think the author has any hatred I her ideas. I don’t think she hates Weisel. I don’t think she hates anybody for that matter, including those she views as perpetrators.
    But, as she expounds on Elie Weisels hypocrisy she succeeds equally I exposing her own. Ann’s maybe that is the best point to be taken from the article. Everybody had the capacity to be a hypocrite.

    • Mooser on July 5, 2016, 10:24 pm

      ” (Though I have never read a thorough discrediting of Nobel prize winner Yassir Arafat, hero to Palestinians the world over by a Palestinian the way so many Jews have pointed out Weisels flaws)”

      Isn’t it awful, “Dabakr”? What a bunch of disloyal traitors mosers and kjapos Jews are. Why, the disunity is more than enough to shatter Zionism, and wreck it.

    • Mr.T on July 6, 2016, 12:26 pm

      “who have attained the status as humanitarian giants”

      LOL. The weasel was no giant.

  5. sawah on July 5, 2016, 11:11 pm

    Thank you Kali. Excellent. I hoped someone would write something like this on this occasion.

    Hedy Epstein would have so liked it.

    Thank you again.

    • just on July 5, 2016, 11:59 pm

      Thanks for linking to that video, sawah. Hedy Epstein was authentic and a shining example of the best.

      Obviously Wiesel never responded to the pleas in the video… he did not care and was a moral hypocrite.

  6. MHughes976 on July 6, 2016, 9:29 am

    I don’t agree that reading Grapes of Wrath means that one remembers the Depression or that reading Julius Caesar makes one remember his assassination. That is to confuse what is personal with what is not. There is a difference between my experiences, which I remember, and your experiences in my absence, which I may know about but cannot witness from my own memory.
    The idea of a witness who wasn’t there, by no means original to Wiesel, is very dangerous, making suitably aroused mass conviction (like the Western conviction that the Nakba is insignificant beside the Holocaust) not only into a self-sustaining force, which to our great trouble it is, but into a self-sustaining witness to its own truth.
    People like Wiesel hold to a philosophy whereby self-sustaining means self-verifying: that is a version of the idea of ‘stories that are true but never happened’. Those he influences become witnesses to his version of remembering, his ‘narrative’, just because they believe what he says – and if his narrative has no honourable place for the Palestinians, they have no honourable place. At this rate ‘it is a crime to forget’ can easily mean ‘it is a crime not to think as I do.’

    • Citizen on July 6, 2016, 10:53 am

      You may be nit-picking too much; you obviously get the gist of what she says; on the other hand, in US courts of criminal law, being a third party witness is excluded in the form of objection as hearsay.

  7. Henry Norr on July 6, 2016, 4:30 pm

    In her Lesson 1 Ms. Rubaii says she did not know that “Elie Wiesel was responsible for codifying the one-to-one association of the word “holocaust” with the massacre of 11 million European “others,” 6 million of whom were Jews.” I won’t claim to be very familiar with Wiesel ‘s work, but I had the impression that he always fought hard to limit the meaning of the word “holocaust,” or at least “The Holocaust,” to the murder of the six million Jews, excluding the Roma, Poles, gay people, Communists, and the others who made up the remainder of the 11 million victims of the Nazi. Was I wrong about that?

    • Misterioso on July 6, 2016, 6:24 pm

      Speaking of Holocausts, I wish the mainstream media would occasionally remind us of what was in fact the worst mass slaughter of humans in modern history. I am referring to the systematic murder of about 10 million Congolese by Belgian colonists during the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries when King Leopold II ruled Belgium. He was the founder and owner of what was then known as the Congo Free State. One of the first people of note to refer to this holocaust was Samuel Clemens, aka, Mark Twain.

      The unspeakable horrors Belgium inflicted on the natives of the Congo, which also included amputations of arms below the elbow, was prompted by pure greed and chronic racism, i.e., to force them to work like slaves in order to harvest natural rubber on rubber tree plantations, which prior to the invention of the synthetic version, was in huge demand in Europe and America to manufacture tires for the burgeoning automobile industry.

      Written by Adam Hochschild and published in 1998, “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” provides an excellent source to learn about King Leopold II and his atrocious crimes against humanity.

  8. MHughes976 on July 6, 2016, 5:44 pm

    The Washington Holocaust Museum, surely much under W’s influence, answers the question ‘What is the Holocaust?’ with reference to Jewish victims and to others, such as communists and Soviet prisoners, without being precise as to whether the term applies to all or only to the Jewish victims. Vad Yashem by contrast defines the Holocausr as the sum of anti-Jewish activities under Hitler, adding that the Holocaust was part of a wider ‘aggregate” of violence with other victims.
    It seems to me that most usage corresponds to the VY definition rather than to the indefinite terminology of Wahington. It would seem odd to refer to a non-Jewish Soviet army veteran, who had been a near starved prisoner, as a Holocaust survivor, permissible to refer to a Jewish person who had escaped before the war in those terms.
    W’s insistence on the theological term ‘holocaust’ draws stronger attention to Jews than to others because the idea of being Jewish is so much understood by reference to religion. But he must have influenced the Washington Museum not simply to exclude the others. Whether there is something of a half measure here is debatable.

    • Henry Norr on July 7, 2016, 12:52 am

      >>[Wiesel] must have influenced the Washington Museum not simply to exclude the others.

      I’m not sure you’re right about that, MHughes. In Max Blumenthal’s terrific commentary on Wiesel, he writes:

      While Wiesel leveraged his literary talents to win sympathy for Jewish victims of genocide, he sought to limit the narratives of other groups subjected to industrial-level extermination. As a member of the advisory council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1992, he lobbied against recognizing LGBTQ and Roma victims of the Holocaust.

      Phil also quoted Isabel Fonseca to the same effect

      Here is an important fact from Isabel Fonseca’s book Bury Me Standing on gypsies and their journey. It refers to the council, or board of trustees for the US Holocaust Memorial:

      It was only after the 1986 resignation of President Elie Wiesel, the survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who had opposed Gypsy representation, that one Gypsy was invited onto the council.

      As I said earlier, I am not very familiar with Wiesel’s thinking, but just about every quote from him I see talks about the Holocaust in terms of “the six million,” which would seem to imply that he’s talking only about the Jews.

      • Sibiriak on July 7, 2016, 3:52 am

        @Henry Norr

        Here’s a long quote from Peter Novick, “The Holocaust in American Life” (emphasis added):


        Six million is an instantly recognizable number, the generally accepted estimate of the Jews killed by Nazi Germany in its murderous crusade.23 The phrase “the six million” is a rhetorical stand-in for “the Holocaust.” But nowadays, for a great many people, the real number of Holocaust victims is eleven million: six million Jews and five million non-Jews. What’s at stake, of course, is not numbers as such, but what we mean, what we’re referring to, when we talk of “the Holocaust.” As we’ll see, the question came to be hotly and angrily disputed in official American commemorations. More broadly, the various ways in which “six” and “eleven” have been used shed light on the uses of the Holocaust in American life.

        The eleven million figure—or, rather, the notion of five million “other victims” of Nazism, added to six million Jews—makes no historical sense. Five million is either much too low (for all non-Jewish civilians killed by the Third Reich) or much too high (for non-Jewish groups targeted, like Jews, for murder). Where did the number come from? Although there is no detailed paper trail, it’s generally agreed that the figure of eleven million originated with Simon Wiesenthal, the renowned pursuer of Nazi criminals.

        How did he arrive at this figure? The Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer reports that Wiesenthal acknowledged to him in a private conversation that he simply invented it.24 He was, he once told a reporter, against “dividing the victims”: “Since 1948,” Wiesenthal said, “I have sought with Jewish leaders not to talk about six million Jewish dead, but rather about eleven million civilians dead, including six million Jews…. We reduced the problem to one between Nazis and Jews. Because of this we lost many friends who suffered with us, whose families share common graves.”25

        The date in Wiesenthal’s remark is worth noting. In postwar Europe, as in postwar America, while everyone realized that the fate of the Jews was “special,” there was an inclination, even among many Jews, to include that fate under the larger heading of “crimes of Nazism.” Wiesenthal—all the more so because of his lifetime mission of ferreting out Nazi criminals, and enlisting the help of European governments in that task—was sympathetic to the inclusion.

        Biography was also important. Many survivors of the Holocaust were stricüy observant Jews who were swept as children from the shtetl to camps where all their fellow prisoners were Jews. Nothing could have been more natural than for them to frame their experience as a solely Jewish one. Wiesenthal—in this he resembled survivors like Primo Levi—was not religious and had a relatively cosmopolitan background. For four years he survived camps like Mauthausen, where many of his fellow prisoners were not Jewish. Wiesenthal’s invention of “eleven million” was bizarre, but given his experiences and the context in which he worked, there was nothing unusual or unnatural in his interpreting Nazi crimes in an “ecumenical” way. 26 In any event, it was with reference to those crimes in general, not “the Holocaust,” that he spoke of eleven million.

        Before the late seventies, few in the United States had ever heard the figure “eleven million.” Wiesenthal’s fame in this country had to do with his exploits as a Nazi hunter, not as an interpreter of the Holocaust. This changed in 1977 when, in return for a subsidy for his program of tracking down war criminals, a California rabbi obtained the use of his name for what became a highly visible Holocaust institution, the Simon Wiesenthal Center.27 “Eleven million” was part of the baggage that came with the name.28 Inscribed at the entrance to the center’s museum was a tribute to “six million Jews and to five million of other faiths”; center publications came to speak of “The Holocaust—six million Jews and five million non-Jews.”29

        Though not originally advanced as such, “eleven million” had become a new description of the parameters of the Holocaust. By itself, the use of “eleven million” by the Wiesenthal Center might not have given wide currency to the figure. What put it on the agenda—what made “eleven million” a slogan for some and fighting words for others—was the setting in motion, in the spring of 1978, of the process that ultimately led to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

        That process began with the conventional understanding of the Holocaust. At a ceremony on the White House lawn in honor of Israel’s thirtieth birthday, President Jimmy Carter announced that he was setting up a commission to explore creating a national memorial to “the six million who were killed in the Holocaust.”30 On this occasion no other definition would have been appropriate, for, as is well known, Carter’s initiative was an attempt to placate American Jews, who were increasingly alienated by what they saw as the president’s “excessive evenhandedness” in dealing with Israelis and Palestinians.31 If the estrangement continued, it could be devastating for Carter’s prospects for reelection, in part because of Jewish votes in key states, and even more because Jews traditionally contributed a substantial portion of national Democratic campaign funds.32

        Jewish White House staffers who developed the proposal for the memorial weren’t moved solely by political calculations; several seem to have had a genuine commitment to Holocaust commemoration.33 But the potential political payoff was paramount. The final staff discussions of the proposed memorial were conducted amid all the hoopla over NBC’s Holocaust. This led one of the aides of domestic policy chief Stuart Eizenstadt to worry that it might look like “a tacky effort to ride the coattails of the show.” So it might, replied another, but “our relations with Jewish community need every little boost possible.”34

        On the day after Carter’s announcement of a proposal to commemorate “the six million,” one of Eizenstadt’s aides suggested to her boss that the new commission might “consider expanding this to eleven million,” following the example of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.35 There were various reasons to move in this direction. Carter’s initiative had preempted a bill recently introduced in the Senate (with twenty cosponsors) to establish a memorial to the Holocaust’s “eleven million innocent victims, of all faiths.”36 In congressional discussions after Carter’s announcement, senators and representatives who lauded the proposal—Jews and gentiles alike—referred as often to “eleven” or “six plus five” or “six plus millions of others” as they did to “six.”37

        When the President’s Commission on the Holocaust was formally established some months later, with Elie Wiesel as its chairman, it solicited suggestions from numerous sources, including representatives of ethnic groups. The director of the Ukrainian National Information Service wrote that Ukrainians also “met Hitler’s criteria for extermination” and were “numerically the second largest group to be destroyed in … Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Dachau.” He asked that whatever was done “reflect the various nationalities and the numerical proportions of the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.”38 Aloysius Mazewski, the president of the Polish-American Congress, insisted that it was Poles, not Ukrainians, who deserved second place to Jews: his total of ten million Holocaust victims was made up of six million Jews, three million Catholic Poles, and one million “other nationalities.”39 On the other hand, the president of the Alliance of Poles of America claimed that “more than six million Christians [mostly Poles]…lost their lives”; he spoke of “the need to memorialize the sufferings and death of our Polish Catholic brothers and sisters—and not only those of Jewish tradition. To do otherwise would make their suffering and death meaningless.”40

        In April 1979, while the commission was deliberating, the first “Days of Remembrance” of the Holocaust were held in the Capitol Rotunda.41 By this time, for whatever reasons, the White House had changed its definition of “the Holocaust.” President Carter spoke of “eleven million innocent victims exterminated—six million of them Jews.” Vice President Walter Mondale spoke of bearing witness “to the unanswered cries of the eleven million.” 42

        This redefinition was, of course, deeply offensive to Wiesel. His commission’s report, delivered to the president in September 1979, was, above all, a rejoinder to Carter’s new characterization. It insisted on the Jewish specificity—the Jewish essence—of the Holocaust: “any attempt to dilute or deny this reality would be to falsify it in the name of misguided universalism.”

        The report contained phrases that Wiesel was to repeat frequently over subsequent years—acknowledging that Nazism had other targets, but insisting on the temporal as well as the conceptual priority of Jewish victimhood: “as night descended, millions of other peoples were swept into this net of death”; “Jews might not have remained the final victims of Nazi genocide but they were certainly its first”; “as always, they began with Jews[;] as always they did not stop with Jews alone.” There were indeed “other victims,” whose existence should be recognized in the museum being recommended, but, the report strongly implied—without quite saying so—they were not victims of “the Holocaust.”43

        The following months saw an intense struggle between Wiesel and Jewish staffers in the White House over how the Holocaust should be described—who would be included. It was “morally repugnant,” said one presidential aide, “to create a category of second-class victims of the Holocaust as Mr. Wiesel would have us do.”44 Stuart Eizenstadt urged Carter that in the executive order creating the Holocaust Memorial Council (successor to the presidential commission) he should “make clear the memorial is to honor the memory of all victims of the Holocaust—six million Jews and some five million other peoples.”45 This definition, one staff member pointed out, was that of Simon Wiesenthal, “whose Holocaust credentials are as good as anyone else I know.”46

        At the eleventh hour there was an ingenious proposal from Wiesel and the commission’s new director, Monroe Freedman, to resolve the question through punctuation. The White House draft spoke of commemorating “The Holocaust, the systematic, state-sponsored extermination of six million Jews and millions of other victims of Nazism during World War II.” The proposed alternative would make a conceptual separation through the use of dashes: “The Holocaust—the systematic state-sponsored extermination of six million Jews—and the millions of other Nazi victims.”47

        Eizenstadt, in the end, was willing to give in. “For better or worse,” he said, Wiesel had become the symbol of the Holocaust, and if he resigned over the issue, “we simply would not be able to get another prominent Jewish leader to serve as Chairman.” While Eastern European ethnic groups would prefer the original wording, the definitional issue was not, for them, “a live or die matter as it is with Wiesel.” 48 But an exasperated Carter refused to accept the dashes, and the executive order creating the Holocaust Memorial Council referred to eleven million victims. Wiesel did not re-sign, and the museum he was charged with creating was officially committed to memorializing “eleven million.”

        This was clearly unacceptable to Wiesel and others for whom the “big truth” about the Holocaust was its Jewish specificity. They responded to the expansion of the victims of the Holocaust to eleven million the way devout Christians would respond to the expansion of the victims of the Crucifixion to three—the Son of God and two thieves. Weisel’s forces mobilized, both inside and outside the Holocaust Council, to ensure that, despite the executive order, their definition would prevail.

        Though Jewish survivors of the Holocaust had no role in the initiative that created the museum, they came, under the leadership of Wiesel, to dominate the counci—morally, if not numerically. When one survivor, Sigmund Strochlitz, was sworn in as a council member, he announced that it was “unreasonable and inappropriate to ask survivors to share the term Holocaust … to equate our suffering … with others.”49 At one council meeting, another survivor, Kalman Sultanik, was asked whether Daniel Trocme, murdered at Maidanek for rescuing Jews and honored at Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, could be remembered in the museum’s Hall of Remembrance. “No,” said Sultanik, because “he didn’t die as a Jew…. The six million Jews … died differently.”50

        There were also attempts to mobilize Jewish opinion at large against blurring the distinction between the victimhood of Jews and that of others. Survivor Henryk Grynberg even objected to the ancillary role accorded to gentiles in Wiesel’s phrase about others being, “as night descended … swept into this net of death.” This was, Grynberg said, “absolutely false”: “Those millions of others would have perished in the war even if the Holocaust had never taken place.”51

        Children of survivors were often among those who insisted on the distinction between the deaths of gentiles and of Jews. Gentiles, said one, “died a death invented for the Jews … victims of a ‘solution’ designed for others.”52

        For another child of survivors, dismayed by what he saw as the museum’s blurring of the issue,the deaths of gentile victims “were of a different, non-theological order, untouched by the mysteries that reign at the heart of… the ‘Tremendum.'” 53

        Yehuda Bauer enlisted in the battle against what he called the “Wiesenthal-Carter definition.” It reflected, he wrote, gentile “envy” of the Jews’ experience in the Holocaust, which “would seem to be an unconscious reflection of anti-Semitic attitudes.”

        The Holocaust created a pro-Jewish reaction among large numbers of non-Jews…. A reversion back to “normalcy” regarding Jews requires the destruction of the Holocaust-caused attitude of sympathy…. This is achieved by claiming that the Holocaust was … something that happened to many millions of others…. The Holocaust then becomes lost, flattened out … and a “normal” attitude of anti-Jewishness becomes possible again.54

        Wiesel and his allies no doubt feared that the logic of the museum’s “eleven million” mandate foreshadowed “other victims” receiving five elevenths of the space. In the end, largely as a result of the influence of survivors on the council, “other victims” wound up receiving little more than perfunctory mention in the museum’s permanent exhibition.55 Thus, though he had lost in the preliminary skirmish with Carter over the museum’s mandate, Wiesel won the war over its content. Carter’s “eleven million” never became operational doctrine at the museum, yet there remained a vague commitment to a principle of inclusion, producing endless wrangling over the definition of the Holocaust at meetings of the council.

        Council member Hyman Bookbinder—the long-time Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee—was frustrated, and after reviewing the various elusive aphoristic formulas that were trotted out, tried to get Wiesel to answer a straightforward question: “Are the ‘other millions’ victims of the Holocaust, or in addition to the Holocaust?”56 Wiesel never gave a direct answer, and neither has the museum.57 Clarity was undesirable and imprudent; much better to leave the matter ambiguous.

      • MHughes976 on July 8, 2016, 12:29 pm

        Thanks, very interesting!

  9. jackal on July 10, 2016, 2:06 am

    My family, of Dutch/Germanic ancestory, living in the Soviet Union during the 2nd world war could be considered among the “others” of the 5 million who died as a result of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Many spent their time after WWII in Russian forestry or mining camps, after a failed attempt at being rescued by the Germany army as it retreated back to its home country. We have never attempted to seek indemnity from Russia for the confiscated lands and factories, the schools and the churches. These were properties that were purchased in the 17 and 1800’s so we would have considerable justification, particularly moral justification, in asking Putin for a huge settlement.
    Two books to put on your reading list:
    1. Finkelstein, THE HOLOCAUST INDUSTRY
    2. Mulhall, AMERICA AND THE FOUNDING OF ISRAEL, An Investigation of the Morality of American’s Role.

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