And people know
Sixty years after the liberation, the last of the survivors and the last of the perpetrators are approaching the end of their lives. But the Holocaust continues and will continue to serve as a yardstick for ultimate human horror.
In the final scene of S. Ansky's play "The Dybbuk," the symbol of an entire Jewish world that was annihilated in the Holocaust, Hannan, the dybbuk exorcised from the body of his promised bride, Leah, says: "Your body is lost to me, I will come only to your soul."
More than 1 million Jews, about 70,000 non-Jewish Poles, more than 20,000 Gypsies, 10,000 Russian prisoners of war and thousands of others who were sent to the Auschwitz concentration and death camp for all kinds of terrible reasons, and often for no reason at all, were slaughtered. On January 27, 1945, 60 years ago this week, the Red Army liberated the 7,600 people who survived there. Since that day, Auschwitz has remained in humanity's soul.
All those things
At Auschwitz, in a horrible and prolonged succession (from 1941 to 1945), all the things occurred that happened to the Jews - as individuals, as communities and as a people - at the hands of the Germans and can be summed up under the heading "Holocaust." It was established as a concentration camp intended to break the bodies and the spirits of political prisoners, initially Poles, then Russian prisoners of war and then Jews. The motto above its gates, "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work liberates"), was brought from the camp at Dachau in Germany. The prisoners built the gas chambers and crematoria that made Auschwitz into a death camp as well. Some of them were Kapos, whose cruelty was greater than that of the S.S.
The place was also an industrial complex, where private companies and the S.S. raked in profits from slave labor; it was also the site of horrific medical experiments. To this end, "selections" were held of those who managed to survive the journey of many days in the cattle cars; some were sent to work and some to immediate death. Auschwitz is the only camp where numbers were tattooed on the arms of those selected to be sent to work.
There are endless details, and there is no God in them, but it all boils down to this: Human beings in a position of power did to other human beings, who were helpless, things that are incomprehensible and inhuman. The process was carried out in the guise of a demonic rationalization (the "Other" is dangerous and has a power that threatens us) and with "humane" justifications: Death by gassing was aimed at protecting the Germans who carried it out from the psychological wear-and-tear resulting from mass execution by shooting, at deceiving the victim by means of a sort of "camouflage," so that he would not resist until it was too late, and at making his suffering shorter, supposedly. (Historically, death by gassing was developed in the context of "mercy killings" of the mentally ill).
They didn't want to know
Polish writer Slavomir Mrozek, who experienced the war as a child, began to write in communist Poland in the 1950s out of identification with the regime and also out of fear. Then he sobered up. He writes: "I will never scorn a German who, after the war, explained, `But I didn't know.' Of course he knew, but is he lying? Only in a certain sense, because he knew, but he did not want to know that he knew. A paradox? Yes, but I know how this is done, because I myself did it. But paradoxes are not admitted as defense arguments in the court. You are judged by your intention, and both the German and I sincerely intended not to know that we knew. And both of us were afraid."
This conclusion is fitting not only for the Poles or the Germans, as individuals or as nations. It applies not only to the remaining victims and to the last of the perpetrators, but mainly to the millions of individuals and the nations that behaved as bystanders (at least with respect to the annihilation of the Jews). It is important not only in the past, but also in the present and in the future: It is possible to want not to know that you know.
And people know.
All these atrocities happened
And there are also deniers. The many attempts to cast doubt on what happened without a doubt at Auschwitz and other camps led Oskar Groening, a corporal in the S.S. who was not brought to trial (of the approximately 6,500 S.S. personnel who served at Auschwitz, only 789 were brought to trial - of them, 673 in Poland. Only about 750 received any punishment at all), to say publicly, in a BBC series being broadcast this week: "I would like you to believe me. I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoriums. I saw the open fires. I was on the ramp when the selections took place. I want you to believe that all these atrocities happened, because I was there."
Reversal of the equation
The instinctive response when someone compares something happening today - in the world, and especially in the Jewish state - to what happened in the Holocaust, is to declare this "a denial of the Holocaust." However, a person who uses his memory is in fact not denying it. Perhaps it is better to take the name of the Holocaust in vain than it is to ask, too late, "How could it have happened?"
What arouses the stiff resistance is the reversal of the equation. What gives rise to the reversal is the situation. The Jews in Israel are among the only peoples, if not the only one, that within a few generations changed from the status of victim in danger of annihilation to the status of a state with tremendous military strength that is controlling the destiny of another people. They depict us - and we depict them - as dangerous and threatening. Both sides have bloody proofs for their arguments.
What should be learned?
In his speech at the special convocation of the United Nations General Assembly this week, Elie Wiesel also spoke about the horrors that people are continuing to inflict on other people in the world today, despite the Holocaust, and mentioned Darfur, Cambodia and Rwanda. He asked: "Will the world ever really learn?"
Learn what? "The Holocaust must never happen to us again"? Or, "the Holocaust must never happen again"? Toivy Blatt, who was forced to be in the Sonderkommando at Sobibor and managed to escape in a revolt that broke out at that death camp, says that the only thing he learned is: "Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these (different) situations. Every time someone is really nice to me, I find myself thinking, `How will he be at Sobibor?'"
The scale of horrors
In the 1960s, at the annual assemblies for Holocaust Remembrance Day, I would recite Avraham Shlonsky's "The Vow," with the line "to remember until the 10th generation." Sixty years after the liberation, the last of the survivors and the last of the perpetrators are approaching the end of their lives. But the Holocaust continues and will continue to serve as a yardstick for ultimate human horror, and there are those who refuse and those who are not afraid to use this yardstick to measure themselves and others.
It will be only many years hence that the annihilation of the Jews of Europe will recede into history and until we will be able to say, as in the Passover ritual, "For in every generation a person must see himself as though he himself... " - and to mean this and yet not to mean this, with the same degree of conviction.