Yom HaShoah 5770

11 04 2010

It is here again; it has been and gone. Another year has passed and, with it, the day on which we habitually pay lip-service to the darkest stain on modern history. I am reminded of a conversation that I had with colleagues at work, some time between last year’s Yom HaShoah and this one. It was a lunch meeting and, eating sushi, one colleague remarked upon the fact that she had not yet seen, and will not see, The Reader. Her reason was simple: it humanises the Nazis. This astonished me and, despite the fact that I appeared to be in the minority, I told her so. “The Nazis were human,” I complained. They were regular people: they loved their wives, their husbands, their children and their land. They enjoyed wine and music and literature, and all the other baggage that goes along with being citizens in a modern, Western, civilised country. They had regular jobs, ate regular food, and laughed naturally at jokes that she and I would find quite funny. And yet, despite all this, they were responsible for the execution of absolutely monstrous crimes. To suggest that they were therefore monsters is to cheapen the event and to rob it of its significance. But what is its significance?

A very good friend of mine (who shall of course remain nameless) recently confessed a shocking truth. Her maternal grandfather was a member of the Hungarian Nazi party, and came to Australia as so many war criminals came: with an altered name and a new vision of the future. His deathbed confession was not one that my friend’s mother even wanted to hear, and I cannot imagine how fraught her own identity must be. My friend, however, feels sufficiently distant from the actions of her grandfather – and rightly so. Nonetheless, she was almost frightened to tell me, given the fact that both of my maternal grandparents were Hungarian Jews, and it is by no means impossible that her grandfather was directly involved in their brutal treatment, or even the murdering of much of their family. Even if not, he is responsible by association.

It is too easy for me, in turn, to distance myself from his behaviour. I was not even related to him – nor, indeed, to anybody responsible for such atrocities, and so my conscience is clear. But this would be to make the same mistake made by my colleague: to assume that, by virtue of their sadism, the Nazis were qualitatively different to myself. Sadly, they are not.

Some few thugs poke through the list of German names. Josef Mengele and Heinrich Himmler, perhaps more than any others, were individuals who in another time and place would quite possibly have earned for themselves the pity and contempt of many. But the vast majority – the overwhelming majority – were otherwise good people. Fine people! Educated people! People who should have known better, and no doubt did. Did the world go mad? Is humanity that fragile?

Too many Jews learn from the Holocaust the wrong lesson entirely. “Were it not for the accident of birth,” they say, “I could have been tortured and murdered by the Nazis.” True, but this is hardly a revelation. On the contrary, were it not for the accident of birth, I could have been a Nazi. Until people let go of the idea that it is always somebody else who behaves monstrously, and until they finally get it into their heads that the Jews and Nazis of the Third Reich were not two different species, then we have not learnt anything. Not only that, but history will go on repeating itself in other ways until we finally catch on.

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2 responses

11 04 2010
Judy Redman

I want a “like” button for this!!

13 04 2010
Janet

Great – you should have come to Colin’s course. This is exactly the conclusion. Genocide is possible because humanity makes it is. Ordinary people possess the ability to think and behave horribly, and sadly it seems this will always be the case

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