A Chosen People
There is an old train station in West Berlin, hidden behind a fancy bakery in a posh suburb. Its name is Grunewald, and it once served as the staging platform for the deportation of the city’s Jews. In the early 1940s the Nazis would herd people into railway cars in the wee hours of the morning, thus beginning the long nightmare that would end in Auschwitz, or Dachau, or some other camp with barking dogs and stone-faced guards. The Jews were even forced to pay for the train ride, with a bill being submitted to the local Jewish council by Nazi authorities.
It is hard to imagine such a thing taking place in a respectable German neighbourhood, just as it is hard to imagine normal German citizens taking part in Kristallnacht or supporting the Nuremburg laws. Yet most did, and most, like it or not, blamed the Jews at least partially for their treatment. This anti-Semitism was a relatively modern invention, but the hard kernel of discrimination, anti-Judaism, dates back far earlier.
I am ashamed to admit that this trip helped me understand anti-Judaism in a way I never have before. There were even moments, walking through the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (Warsaw), when I became angry with these historical Jewish communities for what I perceived as arrogance. How could you not have known? I asked them. How could you have lived so large and not seen what was coming?
The problem for the Jews has always been their visibility. Many dress differently, most eat different food, all worship in the synagogue rather than the church, and most can be identified by their lack of baptismal records. Historically Jewish communities have avoided military service, while making significant profit from trade and what is historically known as ‘usury’ (money-lending). Some communities engaged in ostentatious displays of wealth such as elaborate cemeteries, synagogues, and community buildings. Often the Jews were a community within a community, an isolated, non-integrated, different society popularly perceived as leaching off of the larger state. History suggests that persecution of such communities is nigh inevitable, since they neither fit the ideal imagined by the state, nor show any sign of trying to integrate into it.
(Edit: After a discussion with a friend, I’ve realized that the previous paragraph needs clarification. Nothing in history is actually ‘inevitable’, because that would take agency and responsibility out of the hands of historical people. Also, the visibility of the Jewish community should neither be condemned nor used as justification for their oppression. I simply wish to highlight how difficult it can be for a dominant culture to accept a visible minority without channeling that cultural friction into paranoia and violence. The fact that I could justify some of the logic of oppression to myself was unsettling, and I took the risk of explaining that line of thought in print (maybe not the wisest decision).
But I do think it’s important to realize how easily we slip into ways of talking and thinking which normalize the ‘othering’ of minority communities and use their visibility against them. I think especially of a post a saw only last week, in which a commentator kept track of the number of burkas she saw while cabbing around a European city, and presented that number as evidence of the Muslim takeover of Europe. She knew that the women beneath were Muslim because of the burka; the burka made them visible, and therefore vulnerable.
How many of us worry about the number of burkas on our street corners, the First Nations people in our city parks, or the people of colour in our children’s schools, and extrapolate a narrative in which ‘they’ threaten our status quo? How many noted my use of “us” and “our” in the previous sentence, as if a group other than Muslims, First nations, and people of colour are the ones who truly ‘own’ these public spaces?)
Often the persecution of minority communities is linked to the onset of nationalism, when the people of a self-defined nation both decide upon the characteristics a member of that nation should embody, and begin to purge the nation of elements that ‘weaken’ the homogeneity of that consensus. Yet the Jews were persecuted far before the onset of nationalism, indeed they have long defined themselves as a ‘persecuted people’. Is that simply the cost of maintaining a public separate culture in a world which continues to define the identity of the majority by the difference of the minority?
A comment was made, during one of our debriefing sessions, about a student’s political struggle against the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement on their campus. The student referred to the movement as ‘anti-Semitic’ which sparred a short but sharp verbal crossfire between a few other participants. One student argued that the movement was anti-Semitic because “it denied the right to self-determination to the Jewish people,’ an argument that has obvious problems when considering the Palestinian ‘right’ alongside the Israeli. Still, it shows both the fear that characterizes the Jewish experience after centuries of persecution, as well as the persecution justified by that fear in the immediate theatre of Palestine. Fear of other is perhaps the genesis of atrocity, and no community, Jew or Gentile, has a monopoly on either victim or oppressor.
Orwell once wrote that “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” All of us need to be careful not only to defend those who have fallen into the mud and are being trampled, but also to watch our own step as we do so. The road to atrocity is often paved with good intentions.
We generally avoided talking about the modern state of Israel while in Germany and Poland. I think this was to prevent the inevitable conflicts that such a discussion would entail, as well as the possibility that the group would split into hostile ‘camps’ that would influence its experience of the sites. Only once, the day after the above-mentioned comments, did one of the leaders take it upon himself to give an explanation of the Israel/Palestine dilemma, and even then only in the most conciliatory way. It truly is a tragedy…both sides have made mistakes…yet only one side controls absolutely the political, economic, and military structures within the region. Its ‘mistakes’ have much greater consequences for both populations, and it, historically, has received far greater support from powerful Jewish and Christian constituencies in the West.
I learned growing up that when I made a ‘mistake’ and hit my sister, my action was punished far more severely (and had more consequence), than if my sister made a ‘mistake’ and hit me. This was not equitable, but it reflected (I have always been big for my age) the significantly greater power that my fist brought to bear. To treat Israeli and Palestinian mistakes equally is to ignore the massive discrepancy in global and institutional power enjoyed by the Israelis. Both sides should be disciplined for their actions, but it is part of the nature of governance that those in power are always held to a higher standard than those they presume to govern. BDS has anti-Semitic elements, but it also asks questions that all of us who care about justice should be asking.
Our leader claimed that the Holocaust was not the direct cause of the genesis of the state of Israel, that a Jewish state would have eventually been declared anyway, but I dislike this type of speculation. The truth is evident that the Holocaust created a focus upon human rights and discrimination that changed the face of western civilization. Who knows whether Zionism would have prevailed had the Holocaust never happened, but it is no secret that the very fact of the Holocaust continues to defend and justify Israel’s existence. The Crusades (the last time a western power conquered the Holy Land) live on in infamy, but the Holocaust provided a moral imperative that mostly protected Zionism from accusations of imperialism or colonialism.
Still, the cost was far greater than any political advantage gained. Six million Jews were murdered in the six years that Hitler’s Reich was at war. Six million voices silenced out of a global Jewish population only three times that size. Whatever resonance I may feel about the socio-economic incentives behind anti-Judaism, whatever criticisms I have for the state of Israel, I weep whenever I consider the atrocity committed against the children of Abraham. I weep when I picture families being loaded onto train cars in the early morning Berlin mist. I weep for Palestinian children whose homes have been bulldozed in the West Bank, for the hatred that has been passed on from community to community through generations of fear for the ‘unknowable’ other.
I weep for humanity, for a world which must wade through human ash in pursuit of an ever more fragile, ever retreating future.
And This Too Shall Pass
After the Nazi invasion of Poland the Germans began desecrating Jewish cemeteries by shattering the matzevas (tombstones), and using the rubble to pave roads. The fragment side with inscription was always placed face down, meaning that travelers on the road would never know the true nature of the material beneath their feet. Like the resulting roads, many things in Europe are built upon the hidden remains of Nazi violence, and not everyone believes it is a good thing to bring those remains to light.
One of my fellow students, Jane, had family who had both survived the Holocaust and tried to prevent her from going on the March of Hope and Remembrance. They had no desire to remember what had happened, and they did not understand why Jane would ever wish to see Auschwitz or Treblinka with her own eyes. To them it was a sick fascination.
Jane had struggled mightily with their condemnation, but eventually decided to participate in the program anyway. Several times she came close to tears while struggling with the feeling that she had betrayed her family — that she was overturning stones, discovering secrets, that her family wished to remain hidden.
Elly also spoke of his decision to tell his children about his experiences at Dachau, despite the silence of many of his fellow survivors on the topic. He felt that his children should not feel that part of their father’s life was dark and secret, or that the pain that occasionally manifested was without cause. Elly still believes he did the right thing, although he is now aware that his stories passed on some of the trauma of the Holocaust to his children in a way that they might have escaped had he not spoken of it. He had overturned stones to help them understand, and yet that understanding had haunted them.
He remembers the day that one of his daughters had taken him to see Schindler’s List in theatres. Driving home, she had asked him what he thought of the film, and Elly replied without thinking. “It was a good film,” he said, ‘but a little gentle.”
Gentle! His daughter had been shocked, but Elly knew he spoke the truth. Just as he could not put the real thing into words, Spielburg had not been able to put it on screen. To do so would have made the film an abomination.
I feel that I have written about my experience in a gentle way, but I do not apologize for that. I have overturned a few stones, studied the inscriptions upon them, seen the mud beneath churn with the movement of nameless things, but I have no interest in trying to recreate their horror. People have tried to resurrect the atrocity of Auschwitz in many mediums and many metaphors, and I do not think my own contribution is necessary. I have instead tried to ask questions that are pertinent for my generation, 70 years later, facing a world which is no stranger to genocide, and seems to lack the tools to combat its underlying causes.
Yet perhaps this lack of tools is why we, as a society, keep returning to the Holocaust to search for answers amidst the ashes. Perhaps Jane’s grandparents are right in a roundabout way, and it is only when the world is no longer fascinated by Auschwitz-Birkenau that we will be safe from a repetition of its horror. Perhaps we are doomed to repeat history whether we remember it or not, spurred to the inevitable by sin, or biology, or the terrible fact of our own all-consuming isolation.
I do not know.
But when I think of Elly, of a thin, old man in religiously pressed blazer, I want to believe that we can do better. When I think of his individual crusade, of the hundreds of times he has told his story to thousands of school-children across Canada, I want to believe that memory and education can make a difference, and that those children will grow up to make different choices than their German counterparts so many years ago.
Indeed, even though I fear the terrible truth in the prophecy of the Lord in Isaiah 6:
“Be ever hearing, but never understanding, Be ever seeing, but never perceiving.”
I remember the promise of eventual Salvation.
Barukh atah, Adonai Eloheinu,
One day, Lord, you will bring Shalom.
The names of my fellow students have been changed to preserve anonymity.