Aging Holocaust Scholar Says He Doesn't Have Enough Time to Prove His Theories

Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua reviews Yehuda Bauer's new book on the Holocaust, which 'breaths truth,' despite the author's claim that his work is a fraud.

A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua
A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua

"Ha'am Hamehutzaf" ("The Impossible People" ), by Yehuda Bauer. Nahar Books, 338 pages, NIS 98 (in Hebrew )

"I confess that the book presented here is in fact an act of fraud. The work of a historian of the Holocaust is based on finding documentation that will prove the validity and the analyses of historical events, and here he is presenting a book almost entirely free of footnotes. A historian who makes claims but does not take the trouble of proving them by suitable citations, relying on authorities concerning the matters he is discussing and so forth? ... And I agree with this criticism, because it is indeed so: Here I am offering theses and opinions without proving them in the accepted way. This is a book of essays ... I am an old man, I don't have time, and what is important to me is to present my approach, which in any case will not be acceptable to most readers. And anyway, who can guarantee that a reasonable number of readers will be found for this book? After all, this is quite a crazy attempt: I am trying to look at the history of the people into which I was born - the Jewish people, from its beginning until today, from the perspective of the present. Is this a historian? And selectively, without any pretension of predicting its future, as story and prophecy contradict each other."

This is how Prof. Yehuda Bauer's new book opens - an important and special book, rich in original insights, a knowledgeable book, broad in scope, written in bountiful and fluent language. And even though the author apologizes in the introduction and calls his book "an act of fraud," in the book itself there is no fraud or pretense whatsoever. This is a book that breathes truth, not only with respect to the facts and the historical distinctions, but rather, above all, with respect to the stance of the author himself, who does not hide behind some kind of real or pretended neutral objectivity. He explicitly reveals his ideological, political and moral positions and (modestly ) combines them with autobiographical details. The truths the book reveals and lays bare are also examined, insofar as possible, with universal moral tools.

For example, this is how Chapter 3, "Holocaust, God and Religion," begins: "It isn't that I do not believe in God: The truth is that I believe with complete faith - the way any religious person believes in his truth - that there is no God, because there is no possibility at all that God could exist as an objective entity beyond the imaginations of human beings." This militant secularism along with other clearly liberal opinions are expressed at a number of points in the book, not for polemical purposes but rather as a basic position that guides the historian in his analysis and understanding.

The great virtue of a book written by a historian whose expertise is the history of the Holocaust is that every Jewish thing and event mentioned in the book is immediately accorded an expansion and a parallel in world history, from the recesses of ancient times up to modern days. As a historian, for many years Bauer dealt with the economic and social history of England in the 16th and 17th centuries, of Wales in the 12th and 13th centuries, and even of Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries. This expertise qualified him to examine the history of the Jewish people from varied and distant angles, as a sometimes unique and sometimes not unique part of world history. In this respect Bauer resembles eminent historians who sail in and navigate the histories of other peoples before situating the history of Israel within those histories.

The most stunning example in this book is the author's situating of the Holocaust within the painful and harsh web of genocides that preceded, coincided with, and followed the Holocaust of the Jews in World War II. In this case Bauer evinces familiarity with the acts of collective slaughter of the Armenians, of the Gypsies, in Darfur, in Rwanda, in Ukraine and elsewhere. As a Holocaust scholar he tries to locate the uniqueness of that event amid all the horrors perpetrated in the past and still being perpetrated today.

The uniqueness of the Holocaust does not grant the Jews "a certificate of excellence in the quantity of suffering." Bauer reiterates a number of times: Murder is murder everywhere, rape is rape everywhere, and the Jews do not have an advantage over the sufferings of other peoples that have been slaughtered with equal cruelty and determination. His analysis of the uniqueness of the Holocaust derives mainly from the absence of plausible and convincing reasons for it - economic, political or military, religious or ideological - and from Hitler's determination to embark on the total destruction of the Jewish people by means of, or with the help of, a world war he initiated and advanced. The delirium regarding the alliance between Jewish Bolshevism and Jewish capitalism aimed at destroying and annihilating Germany was, in Bauer's opinion, in fact the most important internal motor in Hitler's decision to embark on a world war, contrary to the clear interests of Germany itself and contrary to the opinions of the leaders of the German military and economy.

This extreme paranoid delirium concerning Jews appeared in a speech Hitler delivered in the Reichstag on the eve of World War II, and again in the last will and testament of the most heinous criminal in the world: "Centuries may pass, but out of the ruins of our cities and monuments of art there will arise anew the hatred for the people who alone are ultimately responsible: International Jewry and its helpers!" Will this extreme hallucination be remembered as belonging only to a madman, or is there a chance it will return and become a reality once again, as Bauer shows so well?

Here I come to the point where I disagree with Bauer. The word "impossible" in the title "The Impossible People" is a translation of the Hebrew word mehutzaf (meaning "cheeky" or having the quality of "chutzpah," or insolence ). Bauer gave the book this title in a kind of playful vein, in the way the word "chutzpah" is sometimes used to describe some hidden virtue of the Jews. Bauer uses "chutzpah" mainly to refer to the Jewish people's longtime ability to survive. And this is what he writes: "We are here, and let us not take this simplistic, tautological statement lightly for, as we shall see, the name 'Israel' was mentioned in the year 1208 B.C.E. in an inscription Pharaoh Merneptah ordered engraved on a stele in Egypt after a journey in the land of Canaan: 'Israel is laid waste and his seed is no longer' (it is not clear whether the reference is to seed in the agricultural sense or in the sense of biological continuation ). Whereas I, small though I be, am writing these lines in 2012 - that is, 3,220 years after the man presumed to have destroyed Israel." Indeed, often survival is considered - both by the Jews and by others - as the most outstanding virtue of the Jewish people. If so, small though I be, I too may be permitted to say that I do not see this survival in and of itself as a virtue. If they were to stand me naked at the door of the gas chamber, I would cry out against this survival, which is destroying me like a bacterium. It isn't the survival that is a virtue, but rather the way it is accomplished, what its contents are, what its values are and above all what its price is.

To put it more bluntly: If, heaven forbid, Israel is destroyed by state or terrorist nuclear weaponry, and afterwards at the holiday of Simhat Torah "survivor" Jews continue to frolic in a synagogue in Brooklyn or in Antwerp, not only will their survival provide no consolation, but rather, it will in fact exacerbate the anger at this survival. Because this is the next challenge for Prof. Bauer, the important and courageous Holocaust scholar: to go deeply once again into the entrails of Jewish identity in order to understand the essence of the pathological interaction it sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, provokes between itself and the world in which it exists.

Yehuda Bauer. A new challenge awaits him.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

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