When We Talk About the Holocaust

The mass extermination of Jews defies all proportion. That is why it has come to serve as a standard unto itself; there would seem to be nothing to compare it to. But it seems perhaps the approach is changing.

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An Ultra Orthodox Jewish man looks at an exhibit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2011.
An Ultra Orthodox Jewish man looks at an exhibit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2011.Credit: AP

The legendary secretary of the humanities faculty at Tel Aviv University, Hanna Shlomi, died a few months ago at the age of 92. On her 90th birthday, family and friends gathered to celebrate with her. She summed up her life with positive words, filled with satisfaction. Someone asked her, "What about the Holocaust years?" (Shlomi, who was from Lvov, first hid and then was deported to Auschwitz; she bore a tattooed number on her arm. ) She replied, "I will not let five years spoil my life."

Shlomi was an extraordinary personality, and not only because of her approach to this decisive event in world history. In discussions of this highly charged issue, she unconventionally "placed the Holocaust years in proportion" to her overall life perspective. Doing that baffles the mind, because the event - the ideology driven, well-planned and industrially executed mass extermination of Jews, though not only Jews - defies all proportion. That is why it has come to serve as a standard unto itself; there would seem to be nothing to compare it to.

Yet most of the world, the Jews as its chief victims and certainly Israel, has not only refused to place it in proportion, but in some cases has utilized and exploited it as an ideological, political and material rationale. It is impossible to talk about a "correct" approach, void of bias or prejudgment, to the Holocaust. It is conventionally considered an utterly exceptional phenomenon in human perception - "another planet," as Yehiel Dinur described it when he testified in the Eichmann trial.

The theological approach is clearly discernible in the terminology applied to the Holocaust, both in Hebrew and in other languages. "Shoah" means calamity and abrupt destruction which produces a wasteland (according to verses in Proverbs, Ezekiel, Job and Psalms ). The word "holocaust" derives from a Greek translation of verses from Leviticus, referring to a sacrifice that is completely burned. Both words were in use before World War II, in different contexts (in 1932, a carpet shop in New York that burned down offered its goods at "holocaust prices" ). But since then some have insisted that the use of these words be confined exclusively to the annihilation the Nazis and their henchmen perpetrated between 1939 and 1945, and some Jews have zealously confined their use to encapsulate what happened to the Jews alone.

True belief

In accordance with a United Nations decision, last week the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day (for all the victims, not only the Jews ) on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. In those three extermination camps and in their satellite camps (few know that it was only there that numbers were tattooed on the arms of prisoners who were initially concentrated for work ) more than a million Jews perished, along with some 70,000 non-Jewish Poles, more than 20,000 Gypsies and thousands of others. About 7,600 people were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

It was only in 1959 that the Knesset established Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, to be observed on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, coinciding with the eruption of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April 19, 1943 ). Marek Edelman, a member of the Bund and one of the leaders of the revolt, described the event as "the large-scale Aktion carried out by the Germans in April 1943, which later came to be known as 'the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.'" The date chosen for the remembrance day and the themes that are emphasized reflect the criteria the state evoked in regard to the Holocaust - which differentiate between those who were "passive" (who went "like sheep to the slaughter" ) and those who rose up; and among the latter between the Zionists of the central stream and the Bundists, Communists and Revisionists.

In our time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns that Iran's nuclear project poses the danger of becoming a "second Holocaust"; those who oppose withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state speak of a return to "Auschwitz borders"; and Holocaust survivors in Israel suffer from hunger, in part because different criteria were set for reparations to Israel and for translating individual suffering into financial terms.

To this we must add the whole controversy over the invocation of the Holocaust in ongoing political arguments about Israeli-Palestinian relations. And so for decades the standard attitude toward the Holocaust, mainly in Israel, has ranged between the theological (as toward a subject of sanctification, with any breach of the consensus considered desecration ) and a variety of instrumental usages which are permissible as long as they serve "our" side - in which the Jew is an eternal victim. And I am not even referring to the various stripes of Holocaust deniers. Even without them, the standard approach to the Holocaust demanded the deference of a believer: not toward the event's occurrence, but toward its sanctity.

Do we laugh or cry?

In regard to the way culture has treated the Holocaust - or, if you will, the "culture of the Holocaust" (the event fomented by the cultured German nation, which undermines every possible concept of culture ) - in recent years the traditionally accepted views have been somewhat rattled.

I will begin with a personal example. In 2003, the Books supplement of Haaretz (in Hebrew ), of which I was the editor, published a review by Gideon Levy of Sebastian Haffner's memoir "Defying Hitler." Levy, who usually writes about Israel's suppression of the Palestinians, noted that the subject here was not the Holocaust but the antecedent manifestations of racism and indifference. Readers were outraged. They argued that Levy was a biased observer and that the review should have been written by a Holocaust scholar. About two months ago, the Holocaust scholar Daniel Blatman published an op-ed in Haaretz on the same book, in which he drew the same comparison. His comments were taken almost as self-evident.

In the 1980s, the Haifa Theater staged Joshua Sobol's play "Ghetto" - which has subsequently been performed around the world - about a theater that existed in the Vilna ghetto at the Nazis' encouragement. Beyond being testimony to an astonishing reality that existed during that horrific time, the play stirred strong opposition, as some of the Jews it depicted were neither victims nor insurgents, but exploitative survivors or collaborators (either willing or coerced ). Today the play has been revived in a lavish production by the Cameri Theater and is also being staged in schools, but the 1980s-style voices of objection are barely heard.

Twenty years ago, it is unlikely that a book like Jonathan Littell's "The Kindly Ones" - a lengthy, highly detailed fictional first-person account from the perspective of a Nazi who had actively participated in the extermination of Jews - would have aroused international interest (even if it generated controversy ) or would have been published in Israel. At the end of 2008 it was published in a Hebrew translation and has sold 15,000 copies here to date.

Until a few years ago, every publisher in Israel knew that books about the Holocaust did not sell in Israel, in part - or perhaps primarily - because they deal with the suffering of Jews; and still less, those that deal with the fate of non-Jews during that period. Yet Nir Baram's latest novel "Good People" - about a German who is part passive, part innocent observer and part German collaborator in his country's efforts, and about a Soviet Jewish woman who betrays her family and serves the regime she lives in - has become a bestseller.

Roberto Benigni's 1998 film "Life Is Beautiful," which is set in a concentration camp and told from the perspective of a little boy - and allows you to watch a film about the Holocaust and also laugh - was met in Israel with shock and rejection. Kobi Niv, for example, who teaches screenwriting, fought the film vigorously. In contrast, Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film "Inglourious Basterds," which certainly punctured more than a few conventions about events of the time, was received without anyone bothering to stir up a controversy.

Tel Aviv's Beit Lessin Theater is currently staging three very successful plays, all of which deal with subjects that in the past would have generated immense furor: "Anda," by Hillel Mittelpunkt, about the political selection of the witnesses in the Eichmann trial and the failure of the citizens of the young Israel to understand the survivors; "The Banality of Love," by Savyon Liebrecht, about the relations between the non-Zionist Hannah Arendt and the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who collaborated with the Nazis; and "Rochele's Getting Married," also by Liebrecht, about a Holocaust survivor whose daughter wants to marry the relative of a kapo from the same camp. Ten years ago, none of this would have been possible.

There are also many cooperative ventures between theaters in Israel and Germany in which the actors address, with considerable freedom of thought and imagination, the relationships between young representatives of the two nations among themselves in light of the past, as well as between them and the Palestinians.

What was considered scandalous and almost pornographic in Dahn Ben-Amotz's 1968 novel "To Remember and Forget" - which includes a fantasy of a young Israeli Jew screwing a German woman, seeing it as a kind of revenge for the Holocaust - became a humorous personal event in a current Habima Theater production (a skit by Yariv Gottlieb in "Post-Trauma," in cooperation with the Dusseldorf Schauspielhaus ). In the skit, a young German woman tells her Israeli lover that if she had known the whole Jewish people was screwing her, she would have treated the event with the respect it is due, and work to meet expectations.

This is of course too complex an issue to be resolved in a couple thousand words. I have touched only on small flashes of what I consider to be a healthy change - an ability not to belittle the meaning and importance of the Holocaust, but to display a certain, wary, sense of proportion. Far from the approach of Hanna Shlomi - she's entitled to it, it was her life; we are not - but with a measure of irony in looking at and contemplating the Holocaust. The ability even to laugh at it. Because laughter also macht frei; certainly a lot better than work.

Maybe the following dialogue will illustrate the subject best of all:

- What's worse than taking a bite out of an apple and finding a worm?

- What?

- Finding half a worm.

- Yuck.

- And what's worse than that?

- What?

- The Holocaust.

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