Auschwitz was the last place on earth I ever wanted to visit. A place that has become a byword for the Holocaust and synonymous with evil, it was somewhere I had always avoided going to, or even thinking much about. Although the Holocaust looms large in my own sense of Jewish identity and narrative of Jewish history, as it does for almost all Jews today, like many Jews of my generation I have always felt slightly uncomfortable and uneasy with the dominant role that the Holocaust plays in contemporary Jewish life. Organized Jewish trips to the death camps in Poland, like the annual ?March of the Living,? struck me as a somewhat macabre activity, and an emotionally manipulative way of fostering Jewish identity and support for Israel and Zionism. What seemed to me like Holocaust tourism was, I believed, distasteful and psychologically unhealthy, so it was with a great sense of trepidation that I went to Auschwitz last month while visiting Poland with my father (we went to see the small town in eastern Poland where our family once lived for generations).
It is impossible to fully convey the experience of being in a place in which roughly a million Jews, as well as over a hundred thousand non-Jewish Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war, were murdered, so I will not even try. But one thing that especially struck me was how modern everything was. The neat rows of red-brick prisoners? barracks in Auschwitz I (the concentration camp, separate from the extermination camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau), the telephones and radios in the guard rooms?this was not a place from the distant past, but somewhere that was built and run not very long ago. Suddenly, the great historical distance that I had always unconsciously placed between the Holocaust and my own life and the world I lived in collapsed. For the first time in my life I truly appreciated something that is both banal and vitally important: the Holocaust did not take place a long time ago! It is, historically speaking, a very recent event.
This personal realization of the Holocaust?s proximity to our own times is very much in my mind today, as I am now in Israel on Yom HaShoah, the country?s Holocaust memorial day. For any visitor to Israel, it is an eerie experience to be here on this day. A country that is normally noisy and bustling with activity falls silent and still. Cafes, bars, cinemas, and theaters are closed, all day long television and radio programs are devoted to discussions of the Holocaust and stories about its victims and survivors, and most jarring, at precisely 11:00 a.m. a siren wails, all traffic stops, and people stand in silence for two minutes of remembrance. Nothing expresses the centrality of the Holocaust in Israel?s public life and in Israeli collective memory more than that long silence.
For many people outside of Israel, the country?s devotion to the memory of the Holocaust appears to border on the obsessive. Again and again, commentators, politicians, and writers around the world bemoan what they regard as the excessive tendency of Israeli Jews, indeed Jews in general, to harp on about the Holocaust. It is not just fatigue and perhaps annoyance at being made to feel guilty about the Holocaust, especially for those born after it, that accounts for this attitude. It is also a belief that Israel?s ?obsession? with the Holocaust is somehow to blame, at least in part, for what many people around the world, and especially in Europe, see as Israeli military aggression towards Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the current Israeli leadership?s belligerent attitude toward Iran. According to this increasingly popular view, the memory of the Holocaust makes Israeli Jews irrationally fearful, distrustful of others, and overly reliant on their own military strength. It also allows Israeli leaders, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, to exploit Western guilt to further Israel?s territorial ambitions (specifically in the West Bank) and geo-strategic needs.
Although this view grossly oversimplifies Israeli public opinion, completely ignores Israel?s legitimate security needs and concerns, and harshly accuses Israeli leaders of cynically using the Holocaust for their own ulterior motives, there is nevertheless a grain of truth to it. The Holocaust undoubtedly casts a long shadow over Israel and everything it does. It is a central element, perhaps the most central element, in the collective memory of Israeli Jews and in shaping Israeli national identity; and Israel?s foreign policy, its security perceptions, and the behavior of the IDF are all influenced to some degree by the collective memory of the Holocaust. Indeed, the Holocaust is widely regarded by Israeli Jews as the ultimate proof of the correctness of Zionism and the most compelling justification for the continued existence of the Jewish state. This view was already expressed in Israel?s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which stated:
The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people?the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe?was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations.
It is also true that the dominance of the Holocaust in Israeli collective memory and identity has some distinctly negative consequences for Israelis, as well as for Palestinians. It promotes an Israeli-Jewish sense of victimhood and self-righteousness, blunting the ability to acknowledge and empathize with the suffering of Palestinians. It exacerbates the fears of Israeli Jews, causing them to exaggerate threats and overreact to perceived dangers. It increases Israeli Jews? feeling of isolation in the world and their perception that the international community is fundamentally, even irredeemably, hostile to Israel and the Jewish people. And it can lead them to embrace the notion of self-reliance, especially upon their own military force, while also causing them to underestimate their own power and agency. In short, the Holocaust has deeply affected the collective psyche of Israeli Jews to their detriment and to the detriment of others, above all the Palestinians.
Does this mean, then, that Israelis should just ?move on? and forget about the Holocaust, or at least stop thinking and talking about it so much? Perhaps it would be better if Israeli Jews were less fixated on the Holocaust, but to demand this of them, or even to expect it from them, is to completely fail to appreciate the fact that the mass murder of European Jews did not happen such a long time ago and that many Israeli Jews are directly connected to this event.
About 200,000 survivors of the Holocaust are still alive in Israel today. The number of their children in Israel is estimated at between 500,000 and 700,000, and their grandchildren number hundreds of thousands more. Many of these children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have themselves been traumatized by what happened to their parents and grandparents. Research by psychologists has shown that Holocaust trauma can be transferred from one generation to the next, and even the third generation can exhibit signs of trauma and other psychological problems. What this means is that more than a million Israeli Jews, at least one in six, have grown up in families directly affected by the Holocaust. We should certainly bear this startling fact in mind when we think about how the Holocaust has traumatized Israel.
It is simply callous to tell Israeli Jews that they should think about the Holocaust less than they do. A country founded so soon after the Holocaust, and populated by so many people who have been directly and indirectly affected by it, would inevitably be profoundly shaped by this event. Rather than forgetting about the Holocaust, therefore, what Israeli Jews, in fact all Jews, should do is to think more about how to remember the Holocaust. I don?t mean what kinds of museums or memorials to build. I mean what lessons, if any, should be drawn, how it should be taught, and collectively remembered. In other words, the real issue is not whether to remember or forget the Holocaust, but what meaning is attached to it. This meaning is not singular or fixed. It is open to discussion, revision, and change.
An example of a more open and self-reflexive approach to remembering the Holocaust, and one that both dwells on the past and looks to the future, is an exchange program for Israeli and German high school students that started two years ago. As part of this program, the young participants visit each other?s communities and spend an entire year thinking about the questions of memory, commemoration, and the Holocaust, and also discussing the issues of racism, tolerance, democracy, equality, and civic responsibility. When the Israeli teenagers visit Germany, they stay with the families of the German participants, and also meet with young German Jews. This allows Israeli youth not only to learn about the Holocaust and the destruction of German Jewry, but also to experience Germany today and observe the renewal of Jewish life there. One can only hope that more programs such as this one are developed and that future generations of Israeli Jews, while not forgetting the horrors of the past, are not as scarred by them either.
Photo taken by the author at Auschwitz