Opinion

Tune Out the Politicians This Holocaust Remembrance Day

The only way we can ever properly mourn the murdered Jews and conceive our loss is by remembering that they were neither saints nor heroes. Just people like us

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid speaking at an official Holocaust Remembrace Day event in Israel, May 2016
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

There could have been few more offensive things for White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to do last week following his idiotic comparisons between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Adolf Hitler, and the coining of the phrase “Holocaust Centers,” than apologizing for the offense he caused to, of all people, Sheldon Adelson. But then, when you think about it, among the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust, there was a fair share of gambling parlor owners, so Adelson can be their representative.

Anyway, Adelson didn’t only donate $5 million to President Donald Trump’s inauguration bash, as was revealed this week. He is also the single largest donor in the history of Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem), having given $50 million for the construction of its new museum in 2005. So we can agree he has a claim on a chunk of Shoah real estate. And after all, Adelson is hardly alone in this land grab. It has been happening from the very moment the last Jew was murdered in Europe, and we all want a piece of it.

On Sunday night, as Israel begins to mark Yom Hashoah Vehagvurah (“Holocaust Remembrance and Bravery Day”), few will reflect on how that very name, and the date chosen for it, were the result of political calculations.

Most of us usually abbreviate it to “Yom Hashoah” (“Holocaust Day”), but the “Bravery” was added for two reasons. The 27th of Nisan was already “Bravery Remembrance Day” for the Jewish “Yishuv” in British Mandatory Palestine, commemorating the Jews murdered between 1936 and 1939 in the Arab Revolt. Choosing the same day to commemorate the Jews murdered in the Holocaust fused the memories of martyrdom together, and helped create the narrative of continuation: “meshoah letkuma” – from Holocaust to redemption or rebirth.

The other reason was the closeness of dates to the final stages of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and the revolt there. A large proportion of the leaders and fighters of that uprising belonged to the Zionist-socialist youth movements aligned with Mapai, the party of power in young Israel. It was their bravery that would be commemorated. Those from the other political camps – Revisionist Zionists and communists, who also fought in the ghetto – could be airbrushed from official Israeli history.

From an early stage, the memory of the Holocaust would always be a highly politicized asset. Two years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu devoted two-thirds of his Yom Hashoah speech to Iran and ISIS, and tried to cast the Hitler-loving father of the Palestinian national movement, Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, as the author of the Final Solution. But he wasn’t inventing anything. The Holocaust was always too valuable to be left to those who had actually survived it.

‘Low morals’

David Ben-Gurion warned party colleagues in 1947 that among the survivors were “people who, if they were not who they were – hard people, bad and egotistical – would not have survived, and all that happened to them snatched every good part from their souls.” Earlier, this very paper did the same: Arye Gelblum, one of Haaretz’s senior correspondents, wrote in 1945 that many of the survivors were “suspected of having low morals.”

Not that they were wrong. Both Jews who were murdered and those who survived were ordinary human beings. There were spivs and pimps and scoundrels, just as there were many decent, hard-working men, women and children in the killing pits and gas chambers. Israeli politicians using their memory for political purposes is certainly less despicable than the communist ones who sought to portray them as “victims of fascism,” and to de-Judaize them and the reason they were chosen for extermination.

In the same way, Netanyahu’s rather shameful silence last week over Spicer’s remarks is in no way on a par with those on the far left who glorified the Soviet Union’s part in defeating Nazi Germany, while conveniently forgetting how Stalin was Hitler’s willing ally in conquering Poland in 1939 and for the first two years of the war. Not for nothing does Russian history insist, to this day, that World War II took place between 1941 and 1945.

Everyone wants their piece of the Holocaust. Which is also why we have three different Holocaust days. Ultra-Orthodox Jews bridled at the fact that the secular Israeli state set Yom Hashoah in Nisan – that festive month during which public bereavement is banned by rabbinical law. They reserved the fast of the Tenth of Tevet for saying Kaddish for those who died in the Holocaust. To this day, Haredi newspapers do not mark the Holocaust along with the rest of the country, and ultra-Orthodox schools, yeshivas and seminars continue to observe their regular curriculum.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attending Yad Vashem prior to Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Holocaust remains a terrifying and unresolved theological challenge for Haredi philosophy: they have little choice but to channel its memory into the old rituals of fasting and prayer.

As for International Holocaust Remembrance Day – when, after many years, the United Nations finally got around to establishing it in 2005 – there was no way the UN was going to agree to holding it on the same day as the Jewish state.

To ensure the vote achieved a majority in the General Assembly, January 27 – the day the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland – was chosen. Never mind the fact that back in 1945 the Soviet censors forbade for months any mention of Auschwitz and what had happened there, lest it divert public attention from the glorious victory of the Red Army with stories of Jewish or Polish suffering under the Germans. As it is, the UN resolution is a bloodless, diplomatic document, mentioning the Jews only once, designed to say as little as possible so the Muslim nations and other anti-Semitic regimes like the late Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela (none of which endorsed the resolution) would not obstruct it.

We can’t trust politicians with the Holocaust because they are, well, politicians, and not one of them ever got up to speak at a Holocaust remembrance event and didn’t use “the lessons of the Shoah” to somehow further their own political agenda.

But can we trust ourselves to get away from the political Holocaust and remember something that has real meaning for us?

If you are younger than 75, there is no way you could have known someone murdered then. Even those of us who were born into survivor families have only secondhand memories passed on from our parents and grandparents. Pictures and names and anecdotes of people we never met, and the aching phantom limb of the “What if they had been part of our lives,” and their unborn children and grandchildren, our uncles and aunts and cousins. But can we mourn or even conceive of those we never knew?

We can only properly remember and mourn what we lost if we tune out the politicians and stop fetishizing the “heroes.” And we are fortunate because we can go back in time. We don’t have those Jews, but we have their words and lives, brought to us by those who died and those who escaped before, and those who survived. We have Stefan Zweig, Bruno Schulz, Primo Levi, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaac Babel, Vasily Grossman, Imre Kertész, and the list goes on and on. Read them on Yom Hashoah and throughout the rest of the year. So much Jewish life and death in all its variety – and, above all, real people. No saints, but plenty of sinners. Just like us.