"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."
"Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβʊμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος."
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Understanding the Holocaust
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel.
I did not always understand the enormity of the crime. It has been a gradual understanding, over the three decades of connection with the Jewish people, paralleling my development from childhood to adulthood. The things a child sees are different from what an adult chooses to notice – they are less political.
I had heard of the Holocaust for the first time when I was seven. At that time I heard adults talking of a very curious, terrifying phenomenon: soap made of humans. I was too scared to ask for details, but I heard the word Jews, and Hitler was mentioned too, both alien words to me.
But I still had not made the connection between Jews and the Holocaust. I had heard the word used to describe terrible results of battle, of scorched corpses of national heroes. For a young Greek child the word was one of horror, of absolute catastrophe and brilliant, destructive fires. Then in early 1978 I read in a magazine of an attack on a bus in which many Jews were killed in a huge blaze. It was described in the article as a ‘holocaust.’ I was beginning to put together a picture of Jews as victims of fire.
Our first home in Israel was in the northern town of Nahariya. On the road to town stood a large building, a museum, where I was told ‘human soap’ was housed. For years, every time I passed by that building, I tried not to think about it. And when they talked about the Holocaust in school, I tried not to make the connection to that building. Instead I tried to focus on the name of the kibbutz where the museum was kept – and we were encouraged to think of its meaning: Lohamei HaGetaot (Ghetto Fighters). Somehow it made the horrors I imagined – because I still did not really know – seem acceptable. I rationalized it had been a battle, a war, full of glory and the death of heroes.
Over the years the narrative of heroism, victimhood, suffering and liberation, were not readily distinguishable to me. The order and proximity in which three days of commemoration fall, create a sense of historical order: Holocaust memorial is followed a week later by the memorial for the fallen soldiers of Israel, and immediately after by Independence Day celebrations. It is hard to miss the progression: we were persecuted for being Jews; we shed much blood to gain our independence; now we have a Jewish state. At a much later date, I also came to see an ominous warning in the progression: our lesson is that we will never again allow another Holocaust on our people – be warned.
The real change for me, when I began to put it all together - the horror, the enormity, the narratives, the inhumanity and the perseverance - happened when I went to the neighborhood store one day. The owner, a nice little old man who looked a bit like Yoda - Mr. Katz was his name - normally had long sleeved shirts on. One summer day even he succumbed to the heat wave. A barely discernible smudge on his arm, somewhere in the wrinkled old skin, stood out as he reached out to give me change. Mesmerized I stared and realized it was a number.
To me, the number came to symbolize the uniqueness of the Holocaust. It was no longer just genocide; it was something else, something for which I am still short of words. In retrospect I think that the number on the arm of Mr. Katz shocked me because it made him definitively unheroic. It stripped him of his identity, of his individualism as a human being. It encapsulated everything that organized extermination was about. The sort of killing that targets people without pathos, without feeling and afterthought: a mechanical, calculated massacre, with the kind of distance between victim and perpetrator that makes it seem almost banal.
Over the years I have had much criticism for the State of Israel. But, as time passed and I came to understand the Holocaust better, the more I realized that there are many out there who still do not fathom its horror, its uniqueness and its significance. This only strengthened my conviction in the need for a Jewish State. Indeed, I was not always a Zionist. But vitriol, hatred and ignorance of the sort uttered regularly by the likes of Iran’s President, Hezbollah’s leader and Hamas, have made me one. Their raw anti-Semitism, and its echoes around the world have led me to draw a red line: I can no longer imagine continued Jewish existence without the State of Israel.
I will continue criticizing Israel where I think it deserves it. And I will continue challenging the victorious, linear narratives of Jewish fanatics. The Holocaust does not make Jews or Israel infallible. Nor did the Holocaust alone make Israel – that is post-colonial gibberish of hateful extremists. But so long as there are those out there dreaming of another Holocaust, I know whose side I am on.
30 April, 2008