THE HOLOCAUST STATE OF MIND
By Eliyho Matz
(First written in 1983)
[In recent years, the German massacre of European Jewry during World War II has become an ongoing obsession dominating the minds of Jews and Gentiles alike. For the survivors who went through its horrors, the Holocaust has never ceased to be a traumatic memory. Until recently, though, the majority have kept silent about their experiences. For how could they explain the unexplainable? But lately, vast outbursts of material on Holocaust subjects in forms such as movies, memorials, exhibitions and commissions have constantly been evolving, aimed at expressing sympathy over, remembering and explaining the mass killing.]
The April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising has since its occurrence been a significant event in historical perspective, although, but for one Israeli scholar, no one apparently has thought to ask how many people actually fought in Warsaw, what was the result of their revolt, or how many lives were saved by it? (See S.B. Beit Zvi, Post-Ugandian Zionism in the Crucible of the Holocaust, Hebrew Edition; Tel Aviv: Bronfman Publishers, 1977.) The symbolism of Warsaw has come to be more important than the actual event – why should this be, surely in part to serve as a rejoinder to the invalid concept that has emerged portraying the victims as “sheep.”
Thus, amidst this background, concepts about the cataclysm have developed and ideas have been formed regarding the roles played by the Germans on the one hand and the Allies on the other, with regard to Jewish lives. While the Germans did the dirty work of killing, the Allies stood back and hardly reacted. The question of “Why?” still remains. So post-Holocaust theorists of Jewish survival now take under consideration that the world wanted the Jews dead, and that consequently European Jews did not have any political allies, a situation which extends into today (see my article “Auschwitz, Switzerland and World War II Intelligence” on the Internet). Some would even go further to claim that the Holocaust can reoccur, although the basis of their reasoning is unclear. “Never Again” slogans are constantly being flung about by Jewish and Israeli politicians and leaders, bearing witness that the impact of the Holocaust has come to play a central role in Jewish Israeli solidarity, in uniting Jews through their fears and thoughts of past, present and future. This is in the face of a situation where very little fundamental research has been done to explain the phenomenon of the Holocaust in other than emotional terms.
In Israel, the Holocaust is interwoven into daily life. First, it is constantly used as a basis of comparison to the PLO, who advocate the annihilation of all Israelis. Today, in 2012, it is the Hamas in Gaza. Also, the Yad Vashem memorial for the six million Jews has become a must-see spot for visitors from both outside and inside of Israel, and tourists as well as foreign politicians who travel to Israel are escorted to Yad Vashem. It seems that superficial political gains are sought by using the Holocaust as an example of what Jews or Israelis can expect from the world. (Ironically, it must be said that the record shows that the Palestinian Jewish Yishuv leadership of the wartime period did very little to rescue European Jews. And if they did take action, they did so along Zionist ideological lines.) The practical political conclusion is that, if such a desecration was allowed to happen, then Israelis possess the right to do anything to prevent a recurrence of their annihilation, never mind actual political considerations. One American rabbi and writer has gone so far as to declare that “the memory of the Holocaust has enabled Israel to be a responsible and restrained conqueror. Memory is the key to morality” [Irving Greenberg, “The Third Great Cycle of Jewish History” in Perspectives (September 1981), p.25]. The Holocaust has given Israelis the right to do anything at any price for the sake of survival.
A number of television documentaries have stressed the role of the Holocaust in real politics. In some of these, Prime Minister Menachem Begin is described as a German concentration camp survivor; and so he is perceived by most people. Begin, however, is not a survivor of German concentration camps. He left his Polish Jewish Revisionist supporters for Soviet Russian and was interned for a while in a Soviet labor camp. Later on he arrived in Palestine as a Polish soldier.
Contrary to the emotional impact of the Holocaust, this topic has never been a major field of serious research in the academic world. This is not to say that many researchers have not carried out some attempts to explain the phenomenon, but most have allowed emotionalism, in many forms, to influence their work and thus have failed to come up with freshly analytical material. For example, there still does not exist even one solid, worthwhile textbook dealing with how the Nazi regime turned from its scheme of hatred and expulsion to one of massacre. And this is to say nothing of some writers who unjustifiably lay the blame upon the Jewish victims in Occupied Europe for not resisting the Germans. Hannah Arendt brought this accusation one step further and blamed the Jewish councils for aiding the destruction process. Were the members of the Judenrat so free as to choose their own destiny? One might raise the question of what Arendt did while in the United States during World War II to help in Jewish rescue?
This leads us into one aspect and probably not the least important which has barely been touched by Jewish writers. This issue concerns the role of the Jewish leadership in the Free World and its reaction to the killing. Historians and writers thus far have hardly raised the question of what impact the reaction of the Jews of the Free World had upon influencing rescue activities by the Allies. Could it be that the course followed by the Free World’s Jewish leadership actually perpetuated Government inaction? For if there was not strong and decisive enough a Jewish reaction, why should the Allied Governments have been expected to do something when the Jewish leaders were themselves less than persistent in convincing those governments to formulate and pursue rescue measures? Two examples should suffice. The facts of extermination were known to the Jewish leaders from November 1942, and they made little effort to disseminate the information. Moreover, in 1944 while debating the question of bombing Auschwitz, certain important Yishuv leaders expressed doubts over the idea, even in full light of the facts of the Auschwitz machine.
In November 1981, a conference convened in New York City, and there for the first time historians attempted to grapple with the question of the wartime Jewish leadership in the Free World. Papers on the British, American, Palestinian and Swiss Jewish leaderships were presented and discussed at length. These papers were eventually printed and released in book form, but few conclusions were drawn. In the course of the Conference, a long debate ensued on the role of the Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. The role of the Zionist movement and its leadership was touched upon, and criticism flared over the movement’s wartime concentration on Palestine and post-War issues rather than on immediate rescue. As yet, no conclusions on the questions raised in the Conference have been reached. An article by Lucy S. Dawidowicz on the role of American Jewish leaders that appeared in April 1982 in the NY Times Magazine seems to be a continuation of the November 1981 debate. The article is basically a polemic, as well as a whitewash of the record of the American Jewish leaders. She portrays the leaders as having been busy one-hundred percent of the time in rushing to save Jewish lives. Such was not the case. Simply by reading Jewish newspapers published during the wartime, one can readily see where and how the Jewish leaders spent their time. A brief perusal will reveal that they were busy with all sorts of issues: communal struggles, Zionist aspirations, visits to foreign countries, tours of the United States, etc. If, as Dawidowicz suggests, the Jewish leaders were preoccupied with attempts to save Jews, why is it that certain Jewish organizations do not allow researchers to study the records of their activities?
While “the impact of the Holocaust has revolutionized Jewish experience as well as thought,”* it is still unclear where this Holocaust revolution will lead us. For it causes Jews to feel impotent, and to believe that in the final analysis we have no allies and can trust and depend upon only ourselves. Consequently, we create our own moral code to ensure our survival, but which instead leads to a vacuum that can only isolate us and ultimately result in our own social, political and psychological destruction.
For an understanding of the Holocaust, if a full explanation will ever be possible, important issues such as the behavior of the Jewish leadership in Palestine, Britain, the United States and Switzerland will have to be included in the total analysis. We Jews who live in the post-Holocaust era must assess our own values and concepts concerning this event so that we will not fail again to do our part in working to save those who need to be saved; so that we will not exploit it in such a way as to destroy the moral foundation upon which our struggle for survival has been built throughout the centuries.
* Walter S. Wurzburger, “The State of Orthodoxy” in Tradition [Vol. 20, No.1 (Spring 1982), p. 3]
In the year 1982, Yitzhak Ben-Ami, a member of the Bergson Group, published a book of memoirs titled Years of Wrath--Days of Glory. I participated in the making of this book by doing research and by sharing in the selection of material. Less than a year ago, on the Internet I published an article titled “Crazy Bergson Boy,” which I dedicated to the Honorable Will Rogers, Jr., who as a Congressman had been instrumental in the effort to save Jews during the Holocaust. Following is a text of a statement in a letter that he sent to Paul O’Dwyer at the Princeton Club on Wednesday, April 27, 1983 (O’Dwyer gave the letter to Ben-Ami, who in his kindness gave it to me):
I regret not being with you on this occasion of the Second Coming of Mike Ben-Ami’s book. This is a chronicle transcending importance because it is a first-hand testimony from a witness of what went on before, during, and after Years of Wrath. It is a story that needs telling: it is the best evidence as it dispels the mythology that is being circulated to cover up the embarrassing truth—that the Holocaust could not have been without the indifference of the Allied governments and the passive role of the Jewish establishment.
For the past several weeks, public attention has been directed at the Holocaust—an impressive Holocaust Museum is being established in the Capital in the shadow of the Washington Monument. We are told that this is to remind us of the crime that was committed by the Nazis against defenseless people—mostly Jews. I am not clear exactly what the meaning is of such a museum. A memorial has a place. But does it tell the story? Does it tell how the British locked the escape route, that the American government was silent, that the Jewish establishment hid, that our State Department refused visas and turned refugee boats back to Hitler’s inferno? The killing was only the final act in the vast conspiracy of cruelty, indifference, and silence. The victims heard the silence. Also, Hitler heard the silence and saw that for this, for killing Jews, there was no protest, no objection.
Of course, there is the other story, Mike Ben-Ami’s story. The story of vision, of resistance, of courage. Amid the horror there is the story of those young men and women of Palestine and Europe who saw the writing on the wall, and warned what was coming. As early as 1939, they banded together to find boats, even built rafts, to float people down the Danube to ports where they could charter ships, and some made it through the British blockade. When the war started, they fought the Nazis, joining the British, French, Poles. Mike joined the American Army.
Above all, they also cried out against the crime that was going on. They were impolite because they were frantic. They broke the rules of etiquette, they ran full page ads telling what was happening, they broke the conspiracy of silence.
Thank God! I was one who heard their cry, and being in Congress, was able to act in a limited way. That’s how I met Ben-Ami, and Peter Bergson, Sam Merlin, and the other leaders of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation. With Senator Guy Gillette, we finally passed the resolution creating the War Refugee Board—the only action taken by the American government that actually helped save lives.
It was late in the day and only tattered fragments remained of what had been the great and talented community of 7 million European Jews (exclusive of Russia). But I remember, even then, in 1944, Sol Bloom, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tried to block us, and we had to go around this vain old man who was more concerned with pleasing the State Department than stopping murder.
The Holocaust is the story of the human being destroyed by his own innocence, obtuseness, self-deception—multiplied by 6 million. It is the triumph of death.
Ben-Ami’s book is the little known chronicle of how ingenuity, self-awareness, and realism can prevail. It is the triumph of life.
Please include me in any program that brings this message of realism before the widest possible audience.