Failing to Live Up to the Standards of the Greatest Generation

World War II has become an embarrassment: How long before the same thing happens to the Holocaust?

Anshel Pfeffer
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Winston Churchill, center, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE-Day, May 8, 1945. It no longer feels as if Britain is proud of winning.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON — Seventy years ago this week, after the soldiers of the 11th Armored Division of the U.S. Army liberated the Gusen II concentration camp, my grandfather Aron Tennenbaum wandered out of the barracks. Dazed, he had not seen sunlight for 10 months. The slave laborers were brought to work before sunrise, spent their days building Messerchmitt fighter planes under the mountain and returned after sundown. Unaccustomed to being allowed to walk aimlessly through the camp, he went into a storage hut in hopes of finding food but it had already been looted. All he found was a cigarette in a tin. He put it in his mouth but he didn’t know how to smoke. He once told me he survived the camps because when the war began he was 15, and he had a man’s body but had not yet acquired a man’s vices, such as smoking. He said he had seen older prisoners die from craving tobacco.

In the next hut, where prisoners’ belongings were stored, he found a head tefillin from a set of phylacteries and strapped it onto his forehead, but for the first time in his God-fearing life he couldn’t summon up the motivation to pray. He left the hut and began to rebuild his life. Within 10 years he was married man with three daughters and a successful company. He’s still going strong at 91. Since he never mastered English (though he remembers the first words he heard in the language, from the soldiers: “We’re American, you’re free”) and won’t be reading this, I can write here that I often think of how I’ve failed his exacting standards of Jewish and family values — the values that he believes saw him through the Holocaust and afterward pushed him to build a family that today exceeds 100, including two great-great-grandchildren. But we all seem to have let our grandparents down.

What about the war?

Thursday morning, as Britons went to the polls, I realized that in months of reading the candidates’ speeches and watching them on television, and in the past week covering the campaign here in Britain, I had not once heard any of the party leaders or other aspiring cabinet ministers and parliamentarians mention Britain’s finest hour. This was particularly surprising in light of the fact that this weekend marks the 70th anniversary of VE-Day, but also because as a child growing up in Britain in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, World War II seemed very present in popular culture, on TV, in children’s books and cartoons, in lessons at school. When we moved to Israel I was only 8, but I already knew all about the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, Spitfires, Tommy guns and D-Day. But I hadn’t yet been told about the Holocaust, and when my first Holocaust Remembrance Day came around, I was shocked to discover an entirely different side to the jolly war. It was only when I came home from school that day that I learned that the Shoah was the reason for the tattoos that mystified me whenever I saw my grandfather on the beach.

In high school I was still mystified, about why Israeli schools didn’t bother teaching about the war, only about the ghettos and the camps and the exterminations. Most of my classmates barely knew which countries had fought on which side. Today I recognize that one reason for this omission was the unwarranted yet inevitable shame at the fact that the Jews had barely fought collectively, as a nation, and that no matter which side won we were the biggest losers. Childishly I felt superior in my British identity and knowledge of the war, as though I were somehow on the winning team.

It no longer feels as if Britain is proud of winning, of being the only country that fought the war from start to finish, for six long years. There will be national memorials, of course, but these have largely been drowned out by the crescendo of the election. Queen Elizabeth, a member of that “greatest generation,” will not be attending so as to avoid the suggestion of interference in politics. Though why anyone would make that leap is beyond me.

I heard many people mention Poles this week, but while for Britons they were once the “plucky Poles,” the first country to feel the brunt of the Wehrmacht, the nation on whose behalf Britain went to war, now it’s “Poles coming over here, walking all over us and taking our jobs.” Poland, indeed all of Europe, is no longer the continent Britain fought to liberate, it’s a hostile entity, interfering with its silly rules and regulations and allowing those grasping Romanian gypsies to descend in their hordes on Britain’s shores and demand social benefits.

Britain and the United States could have kept out of the war. They could have acquiesced to Nazi Germany’s domination of Europe, Britain might have kept its empire intact and after Pearl Harbor the Americans could have devoted their resources to ending their war with Japan much earlier and with fewer casualties. Can anyone imagine today’s America or Britain making that sort of sacrifice? Neither country could even make the effort, at an infinitesimally smaller price, to try to keep Bashar Assad from butchering nearly a quarter-million of his people so far or to honor their commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and stop Vladimir Putin’s multiple invasions.

It’s no wonder that the only nation proudly commemorating victory this weekend is Putin’s Russia; the absence of Western leaders from Moscow’s massive parade, their diplomatic boycott over Ukraine, is eerily ironic. For 70 years the Soviet Union and then Russia built the myth of the Great Patriotic War on the bodies of millions of Soviet soldiers and citizens, expunging from their official history the fact that for the first two years of the war they were Hitler’s willing allies in dismembering Poland. The war continues to serve the Kremlin well in its propaganda campaign to portray Putin’s rivals at home and abroad as neo-Nazis. The British and the Americans don’t have the same propagandist urges. Stuck in a morass of identity crises and liberal angst, they seem almost ashamed to make too much of the war that remains their finest hour.

Oddly, the Holocaust is a much more convenient issue today. The only times I heard David Cameron and Ed Miliband refer to the war in this campaign was in interviews with Jewish media outlets and videos for Jewish voters. Each committed his future government to Shoah education and commemoration. Each seemed perfectly sincere (Miliband is the son of Holocaust refugees), but will that consensus last?

If someone had suggested 30 years ago in Britain that the 70th anniversary of VE-Day would be so low-key, it would have sounded outlandish. Today, it does not seem inconceivable that the Holocaust will be relegated to a similar dusty cupboard of slightly shameful historical memory. Partly it is because Israeli leaders, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu, are reaching peak Shoah-politicization. Many Israelis, even right-wingers, roll their eyes as soon as Bibi brings it up yet again. In this atmosphere of backlash, one day the very mention of the Holocaust will seem crass. It’s easy to blame Netanyahu, but the truth is that we all are increasingly embarrassed to talk about the Holocaust. After failing, inevitably, to meet the standards of our grandparents who lived through the Shoah, we have yet to construct, in our personal and political lives, a system of values that is worthy of their sacrifice and memory.