The 'Modest' Book That Exposes Israelis to the Holocaust's non-Jewish Victims

An editor of a book about the non-Jewish victims of the Nazis responds to Daniel Blatman’s review.

Nazi concentration camp patches.
Wikimedia Commons

I was deeply distressed by Prof. Daniel Blatman’s review of the book I coedited with Sarit Zaibert. Blatman has every right not to like our work, not to appreciate it and also to be sharply critical of it. But I cannot accept the tone of condescension, disdain and personal assault on the researchers cited in it, some of whom are in the front ranks of the field in Israel and abroad.

The eight contributors submitted – willingly, quickly and even generously – articles that were written especially for our collection.

The modest book, Blatman writes, “tries to fulfill this mission, which is of crucial historical importance but primarily conveys a crucial humane message. It’s an almost impossible mission in the violent, racist, proto-fascist Israel of 2016 [The book] is intended mainly for high-school students or for the general reader who wants to broaden his knowledge of a subject for which almost no material exists in Hebrew.”

That is in fact the book’s aim: to try to cope modestly with this impossible mission. It is therefore even more difficult to understand the source of Blatman’s ire and why he tries to undermine the book, which is indeed the first of its kind in Israel. The response of both Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem] and the Education Ministry also show how timely this “modest book” is. They both avoid a proper discussion of the way we are teaching the Holocaust and demand a way to create a lasting memory of it for new generations. Different studies reveal that the Israeli student admits that he doesn’t know anything, or almost anything, about the Gypsy genocide, about Jehovah’s Witnesses, about the eradication of homosexuals and other victims by the Nazis. These embarrassing data are the result of a policy.

The harsh reality in which Israeli society finds itself is explicitly referred to in the volume’s first sentence.

We received a great many surprising and moving reactions. “The book makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi regime, crimes which in some cases have not been sufficiently investigated”; “the book provides information, interpretations and new insights it is timely and extremely important”; “the book should be taught in educational and other institutions in order to show the correct context of the Holocaust of European Jewry and to learn about the fate of the other victims. I hope the book will be widely distributed and reach as many students and other readers as possible.” These are comments we received from leading researchers of the Holocaust and Nazism.

Guides on Israeli school trips to Poland ask for the book, and make such comments as, “For the first time we have material in Hebrew to offer the many people who are traveling to Poland.” Among them are quite a few guides who accompany the trips organized under the auspices of the Education Ministry.

One can, of course, comment, object and make suggestions. Certainly it is possible to suggest different appendices – but not to write about “source materials [that have] no common denominator.” The appendices are intended to provide additional information about the non-Jewish victims who are the book’s subject.

The passages by Primo Levi and Elias Canetti about the Gypsies, and by Günter Grass on Jehovah’s Witnesses are masterpieces with supreme moral significance. These are texts with which Israeli students are not familiar – and I say this in pain and sorrow.

Many people noted that this was the first time they had heard about the brown, red and pink patches. I believe that the book’s cover, which shows the five patches that existed in addition to the yellow patch, makes a very powerful statement. If even one student reads the Primo Levi excerpt for the first time and learns about the other patches, we will have succeeded.

Exposure of the additional victims of the Nazi regime does not in the least diminish “our Holocaust.” On the contrary, it gives the Holocaust a universal dimension. It also reveals additional aspects about the singular traits of the Jewish genocide.

The lack of knowledge, the disregard and the disinterest of young Israelis in the subject of the other victims of the Nazi regime are the result of an educational, moral and ideological approach that we are trying to critique while also suggesting – in contrast to the academic establishment and Yad Vashem, of which Blatman is a part – a different way. We devoted a great deal of thought, work and also financial investment in the book, without marketing or public relations mechanisms, because we thought we were performing a worthy act. Indeed, the book was not published by Oxford University, nor by Yad Vashem, which would have disqualified it out of hand.

The book is not intended for ex cathedra professors and does not purport to offer the latest research in the field. Its purpose is more modest and, if I may say so, more important. It is suggesting that a different way be tried to teach the Holocaust in Israel and to shape its memory. We are proud of the book.

Prof. Yair Auron has spent the past 25 years studying genocide and Israel’s attitude toward the genocides of other nations.