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Kingston Daily Freeman, Sunday May 2, 1993
The Holocaust: Can we fathom the unfathomable?
John J. Neumaier
marked the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a signal event
in the unfolding murderous Holocaust that ultimately cost the lives of six
million European Jews and millions of other human beings of diverse faiths
and cultural backgrounds. There were many commemorative ceremonies, and
here in the Mid-Hudson I was privileged to attend observances at SUNY New
Paltz and Vassar College.
Perhaps inevitably, an international and intercultural calamity like the Holocaust becomes subject to diverse interpretations and even controversy. A case in point is the Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall in Washington D.C. which was dedicated on April 22.
Jonathan Rosen, editor of The Forward, in a New York Times op-ed piece entitled "The Misguided Holocaust Museum," objects to "the Americanization of the Holocaust," as the project was tastelessly and, in my view, incorrectly, depicted by a former Museum official.
There is a need for such a museum. Otherwise people will forget, or they will be lied to. Already there are some so-called scholars and Neo-Nazis who minimize the Holocaust, or even deny that it occurred. A recent Roper poll showed that 34 percent of adults and 37 percent of high schoolers surveyed either did not know about the Holocaust or believed that possibly it never happened.
Reminders of the uglier attitudes toward the Holocaust were in evidence in Washington at the Holocaust Museum dedication ceremonies when, during the opening prayer, distant demonstrators could be heard shouting "lies, lies, lies." President Clinton took note of the protesters in his speech when he said, "Look at the liars and the propagandists. With them, we must all compete for the interpretation and the preservation of history, of what we know and how we should behave."
When the Croatian President Franjo Tudjman was introduced, he was greeted with boos and hisses from the crowd. In his 1988 book "Wasteland," he had asserted that 900,000, rather than six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. And, in what sounded like a Nazi tract, he wrote that the main characteristics of Jews were "selfishness, unreliability, miserliness, underhandedness and secrecy." He later denied that he was an anti-Semite, and claimed that his views were mistranslated.
Commentator Michael Kimmelman gave this reaction to the emotionally powerful exhibition at the new Holocaust Museum: “Adorno was right on one essential level: No artwork related to the Holocaust can equal in its visceral impact the sight of an actual railroad car on which Jews were transported to Auschwitz or of empty canisters of Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers there.”
It was the philosopher Theodor Adorno who asserted that: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."
It is clear that the Holocaust Museum is succeeding in reminding people of the unspeakable crimes that have been committed against human beings because of their ethnic background and religion. I think we should establish more museums of this type, including one that would depict the sufferings of the millions of people who were brought here as slaves from Africa and the millions more who died in chains in mid-passage. Another major museum in the capital should commemorate the genocide inflicted on the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Alas, the horrors of organized murder and cruelty continue in many parts of the world. Commemorative museums can play a role in concentrating the public's attention on human perfidy. But that is not enough. We must assess responsibility. We must address the question of what we are prepared to do about it -- as citizens, as parents, as educators, as people. The sad fact is that most of the world's governments prefer to point accusing fingers at other governments and nations, not at their own. Elie Wiesel was right to remind us of the culpability of governments throughout the world, including ours, for having done so little to prevent or try to impede the Nazis' "final solution."
During the April observances, many recalled the reluctance of the world's nations to accept refugees from Nazi-dominated countries. There was frequent reference to the historical connection between the Holocaust and the emergence of the state of Israel. The new state became a homeland for persecuted Jews, especially those suffering under anti-Semitic regimes in the West and the East, including the Mideast. At the same time Palestinians became increasingly resentful as their land was bought or taken from them: Arab hostility and war against Israel is part of this history too, and there is no question that Hitler found allies among some of the Arab leaders in his fanatical persecution of Jews.
In the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian nation and neighboring Arab states, extreme nationalist passions need to be overcome. It must be recognized that great injustices have not only been done to Jews, but to Palestinians as well. Like many other Jews, I feel that in the quest for moral justice and material security we must recognize that Israelis and Palestinians share a common humanity, that Palestinian children are as dear to their parents as are Jewish children to theirs. Racist attitudes toward, and oppression of Palestinians must be as uncompromisingly rejected as racism against Jews, or against Africans, or African Americans, or any other ethnic group. Ethnic cleansing is abhorrent, whether practiced in the former Yugoslavia or anywhere else.
Contrary to many anti-Semites and some Jewish people, I reject the "exceptionalism" thesis that attributes to Jews either inborn inferiority or superiority. It is a prejudice that separates Jews from the rest of humanity, both physically and metaphysically. It is the kind of separation that is reminiscent of the Aryan myth that was propagated by Adolf Hitler and his cohorts.
Of course there are some unique characteristics in Jewish history, but so are there unique characteristics in the histories of all groups and peoples. Rejection of the exceptionalism thesis entails recognition of the fact that to be ethnocentric is no more characteristic of one group than another. In other words, Jewish people can be just as ethnocentric as members of any other group. Is this to be held against Jews as a group? Of course not, but it frequently is.
In sharing with you my reactions to the Holocaust and its commemoration, I don't claim any privileged insights into the suffering of the victims. After all, I survived the Holocaust, unlike my Austrian-born mother, my uncle, aunt, and young cousins and other relatives from Vienna, and my uncle from Nuremberg, and several of my school friends from Frankfurt. I cannot speak for them, partly because they themselves differed in various ways, politically, religiously, and otherwise.
Close as I was to my mother, and she to me, I cannot be sure what it is that she would have to say were she still alive or could miraculously speak from her unknown grave. I dare not insist that she or the others would agree with my views on that grim past, or my ideas about the future.
The least I can do to honor her is to visit this summer the site of her unspeakably cruel assassination at the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland. On that sad journey, my wife and I will also go to the Auschwitz concentration camp near Krakow.
A third of the world's Jews were killed in the Holocaust. That was two thirds of European Jewry. I continue to believe the central tragedy is that those who were so brutally gassed and murdered and starved to death were human beings. This is not to deny that human beings are classified and divided in many ways, along ethnic, religious, national, racial, gender, and class lines.
But mass murder and genocide can take many forms. The unspeakable Nazi terrorism included the wiping out of tens of thousands of Soviet villages. Stalin's crimes against his own people resulted in millions of deaths. These were crimes committed in the name of economic democracy. There are also the crimes committed in the name of political democracy against the poor in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other countries, for many of which our own government carries a heavy responsibility.
Unfathomable as are the full dimensions of' the individual and collective sufferings of the Holocaust, in its deepest sense it transcends even the horrors which were perpetrated against an identifiable group of human beings, the Jews. In its technologically systematized, concentrated, compacted form of brutal mass murder in extermination camps and ghettos, the Holocaust must serve as a frightful reminder that unless human beings learn to accept each other first and foremost as human, and work together toward a world-wide society of justice for all -- long as this may take -- our descendants may be condemned to perish in a global holocaust.
|Poughkeepsie resident Dr. John J. Neumaier was president of SUNY New Paltz from 1968-1972 and of Moorhead (Minn.) State University from 1958-1968. He is philosophy professor emeritus of Empire State College, New York City. His column appears in the first Sunday Freeman of each month, and is broadcast by short-wave station Radio for Peace International.|