Israel will be commemorating the Holocaust this Thursday, as the world has done on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 2. This year, more than in others years, it may be important to reflect on what this day can and should mean for Jews and for the world as a whole.
The recent years have seen an ugly politicization of the Holocaust. Iran’s Ahmadinejad has made Holocaust denial one of the trademarks of his histrionic antics, and he hosted conferences devoted to ‘proving’ that standard historical accounts of the Holocaust were wrong. Ahmadinejad’s logic is as simplistic as it is faulty: if the Holocaust is the justification of Israel’s existence, the Holocaust must be denied to attack Israel’s legitimacy.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Netanyahu’s endless harping on the Holocaust theme. For years he has been claiming that modern day Iran is the modern day Nazi Germany; that these years are Munich 1938 all over again, with the world trying to appease the latter day Hitler, and that the next holocaust is around the corner if Iran goes nuclear.
This year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day also happens to coincide with the 25th return of the day Primo Levi died, April 11 1987. Levi was born in Turin in 1919. He led a calm and uneventful life, studying chemistry. He was incarcerated in Fossoli in January 1944 and transferred to Auschwitz in February the same year. He survived there in part because of his skills as a chemist, working in the IG Farben factory. He was liberated in January 27th 1945, and succeeded to return to Turin in October that the same year.
Primo Levi resumed work as a chemist in 1946, and wrote his first literary work, If this is a man, a haunting recall of his experiences at Auschwitz, at night after work. He had difficulty finding a publisher, and the book was finally published by a small house, and received very little public attention. The world, as yet, was not ready for the truth of what had happened in one of humanity’s darkest hours. It was re-issued by a major publisher, Einaudi, in 1958, and only then translated into English and German. Levi resumed writing and wrote The Truce, his account of the journey from Auschwitz back to Turin, published in 1963.
Levi’s work began to receive recognition, and his books soon attained the status of classics. In retrospect, If this is a Man is an almost incredible feat of the human mind: Levi was able to recount his experiences with clarity, calm and almost superhuman lucidity. He had written the book because he felt that he needed to bear witness of what had happened in Auschwitz.
One of the reasons Levi became a literary and moral authority was his profound commitment to truth as a core value which was not to be compromised by any means. Levi’s literary testimony is infused with his identity as a scientist: the world needs to be understood as objectively as we can, and Levi combined literature and science in his memoir The Periodic Table, organizing his family’s history along the lines of chemistry’s most basic structure.
Primo Levi’s work and legacy stands in stark contrast to the recent Holocaust politicization. I do not know how Mr. Ahmadinejad sleeps at night. Does he really believe his own stories? Or could it be that he has a profound need to repress truth, because he does not want to remember that he is part of a regime that sent thousands of young boys into certain and useless death, armed with nothing but a plastic key to paradise in the horrors of the war against Iraq in the 1980s? Could it be that distorting truth has become as much a part of his character as it is engrained in the regime he serves, which oppresses a proud people with a great history?
Netanyahu’s endless use of the Holocaust does, of course, not belong to the same abysmal moral category as Ahmadinejad’s perversion of the mind. Netanyahu is "only" guilty of abusing the Holocaust for his own political purposes - whether it is to force the world to work against Iran’s nuclear program or to convince Israelis that he is the only leader able to guarantee the Jewish people’s survival.
When the Holocaust is politicized, for whatever purpose or reason, our duty to remember is tainted by the machinations of petty political interest. Of course Israel, even in its least palatable moments, does not fall into the same category as a regime like Iran. But Netanyahu’s willingness to supplant bombastic rhetoric for argument and his notorious unreliability has left a mark: his coalition is, beyond a doubt, the most unsavory political sight in Israel’s history. It has pushed Israel further toward disregard for truth than ever before. In a stark contrast to Primo Levi’s commitment to truth and lucidity, Netanyahu’s coalition partners have made attacks on the freedom of speech never dreamt of in Israel’s history so far.
Eli Yishai’s declaring Gunter Grass a persona non grata for publishing his so-called poem about Israel’s atomic arsenal is an example for this. As has been pointed out by many, Grass’ "poem" was misguided, and I think, quite simply stupid: I greatly admire Grass’ literary work, and was taken aback by his writing a political statement that betrayed his profound lack of understanding of current affairs. But Yishai’s connecting Grass’ current statement with his past in the SS at age seventeen is another case of abusing the Holocaust to score political points. Incidentally: Yishai’s only "success" in forbidding Grass entry to Israel was that the international press was diverted to commenting on the stupidity of Yishai’s act rather than focusing on Grass’ enormous blunder.
The Holocaust must be commemorated for its own sake. Humanity must keep its memory alive, because we must never lose sight of what human nature is capable of and we must be aware that civilization is a fragile achievement. Therefore civilization’s commitment to historical truth must be kept beyond political interest: for our sake, and for the sake of generations to come.
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