Not long ago, I was walking through one of the antique sales areas in London with a friend. One of the shops specialized in military paraphernalia and on a corner of a shelf, a pile of Wehrmacht Knight's Cross medals caught my eye. The shop lady informed me that they were much sought after collectors items and upon further inspection, I saw at the back of the shelf a pile of red cloth that ominously looked like swastika flags, folded so as to show just about enough to attract the discerning enthusiast, and at the very back a strip of blue and white cloth with a yellow triangle and a number on it. I couldn't tell whether it was an authentic concentration camp uniform - somehow it seemed too clean - but I felt too physically sick to remain there and left the shop for some fresh air.
An hour later, we were browsing through some other items at a stall further down the road selling Chinese souvenirs. I leafed through an English edition of Mao's Little Red Book. "You don't seem so disturbed right now," said my friend, "even though Mao probably killed many more human beings that Hitler did."
She had a point. I was disgusted by the thought of people buying Nazi flags and medals, but the thought of owning Mao's book seemed rather cool. But then we seem to have a sick national fetish for any kind of Holocaust relic.
This week a wooden hut in what was once the concentration camp of Majdanek on the outskirts of Lublin in Poland was badly damaged by fire, and thousands of shoes of camp inmates were destroyed. Israeli officials said that it was "a tragic loss" and I couldn't help but thinking that at a place where over 79,000 human beings had been industrially slaughtered, the destruction of some old shoes is hardly a tragedy.
I saw the shoes at Majdanek 20 years ago, as a high school student on a trip to Poland. Actually, Majdanek was the very first stop on our route, before Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka and the Warsaw Ghetto, because it is the best preserved of all the camps in Poland, with the crematorium and gas chamber still intact and all those huts filled with personal belongings of the victims. They take high-schoolers there at the beginning for some shock treatment, in the hope that will make them act in a solemn way throughout the trip. (It doesn't always work though. As harrowing as the visits to the camps are, the raucousness at the hotel in the evening goes up a few notches. And why not? )
I know that many visitors have been greatly moved by looking at the huge piles of shoes, which are supposed to emphasize in some way the millions killed, but I wasn't taken in by the numbers. Somehow all the black, nearly identical footwear seemed to blur into each other, and all I sensed was the oppressive smell in the close, hot hut. What did move me finally was when I saw at the edge of one pile a woman's red sandal, with the decorative strap still intact. A remnant with a hint of individuality. I can still see that sandal in my mind very clearly today, and often think of the woman who wore it. How did she turn up at a death camp with such a useless shoe?
Tens of thousands of such shoes still remain in Majdanek, Auschwitz and other camps that are no memorials, but apparently some of the more delicate exhibits, clothes, the piles of hair shorn from the victims, the cardboard suitcases they used to bring a few belongings to "resettlement" and such stuff is falling to pieces, and millions are needed for their complex restoration. But will this be money well spent?
How important is it for us to see physical remnants of the Holocaust? While there have been voices in Israel in the past questioning the value of the high school trips to Poland, mainly from the left wing as students tend to come back infused with nationalism, not only have they continued at a greater pace, but the practice has spread also to the army. Hundreds of IDF officers now participate annually in "Witnesses in Uniform" delegations to Poland - one armored battalion commander told me recently that "whenever I want to try and keep an officer in the service and he's hesitating, I send him on one of the delegations to Poland. That usually does the trick."
The Holocaust is also very present in the IDF, on the office walls of many generals and colonels who put up the framed photograph of three Israeli F-15s flying over the Auschwitz crematoria in 2003. Jeffrey Goldberg picked up on that detail in the interviews he did in Israel for a piece he wrote in this month's The Atlantic, predicting that Israel will almost certainly carry out a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities by June 2011. The main reason Israeli leaders gave him for such a decision - preventing a second Holocaust.
There are good and valid reasons for and against attacking Iran, but as long as the Holocaust is part of the equation, those who have to make the call will never be able to reach a reasoned decision.
It seems that in the national Israeli psyche, backed up by the education system and the IDF, the only worthwhile lesson of the Holocaust is that Israel should be strong and defend itself, and the only purpose of defending Israel is that there should not be another Holocaust.
Israel will probably succeed in preventing Ahmadinejad from building a bomb, but if in doing so its leaders continue to invoke Auschwitz repeatedly, then we are all losers. Israelis will lose the ability and ambition to try and turn their country into something more than just a safe haven, and their senses will become even more dulled to feeling the pain and suffering of others.
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