People who read my comments know that for the last week or so I've been recommending and citing from Avraham Burg's new book The Holocaust is over; we must rise from its ashes, an extended meditation on how the memory of the Holocaust has shaped and distorted Israeli society.
While I'm still reading the book, I've found it incredibly powerful. Burg is both an impassioned writer and a sensitive observer of his society, a combination that leads to an insightful, moving account.
Last night I came home from a dinner party to read his ninth chapter, on "Owning the Holocaust," and I felt for a moment as if Burg had predicted the conversation we would have.
For those who aren't familiar with him, Burg is an Israeli politician, former speaker of the Knesset (parliament), and one of the founders of Peace Now, a grass-roots leftist organization that agitates for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He is a native Israeli (a sabra) whose father was a prominent conservative politician (having served in the Cabinet of every Israeli government from 1951 until his death in 1999) and a Holocaust survivor who escaped the Nazis and made aliyah in 1939. Burg's mother was, like her son, a sabra and for her part survived the horrendous Hebron massacre of 1929.
In Chapter 9, Burg poses the question of whether or not the Holocaust is universal:
For the non-Jew, the Shoah [Holocaust] is a chapter among chapters, a trauma among the other European traumas. It resides in history alongside Napoleon, Versailles, Lenin, Spain, World War I and the divided Germany after World War II. Historians attempt to join the past's fractures into a logical sequence, to connect the Jew to the German, the European, and the universal. But the Jewish narrative collects testimonies and memories, painstakingly adding details. Our facts. Life in the shadow of trauma does not allow room for a bigger picture to emerge -- that of the universal context of hatred and its origins, of dictatorship and tyranny, of the history of genocide, not just the Jewish genocide. "Two people emerged from Auschwitz," wrote Professor Yehuda Elkana, a wise man, a Shoah survivor, and an early mentor to me, "a minority that claims 'this will never happen again,' and a frightened majority that claims 'this will never happen to us again'" (pp. 155-56).
Now Burg poses this distinction in the context of a discussion about the anti-genocidal policies of the Israeli state. He opens the chapter with Hitler's infamous quote "Who remembers the Armenian Holocaust today?" which he is reported to have said in justification of launching the Final Solution. Burg then goes on to point out, however, first that the Armenian Holocaust was very much a topic of discussion in Nazi Germany, as the novel The Forty Days of Mussa Dagh, which tells its story, had been published in German in 1933. Second, Burg highlights the irony that the official position of the State of Israel for years was to deny the Armenian Holocaust:
The Jewish state stood time after time beside the Turkish government in denying the Armenian Holocaust. Except for a few politicians like Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, all Israeli officials adhered to the Turkish propaganda lines. It seems that the reason was strategic: to maintain good relations with Israel's only Islamic ally in the region. But everyone close enough to the Israeli psyche knows that we deny the Armenian Holocaust to ensure that the Jewish Holocaust stays our own. We have taken the oath that there will be no more Shoah. Never again is our mantra, and never again is our obsession. "The Eskimo and the Armenians do not interest us, only the Jews do," the Prime Minister's Office chief of staff once said (p. 153).
This brings me to our dinner conversation last night. Me, mrs. litho, and litho, jr. have been visiting my mom since the middle of last week -- our winter vacation to the Midwest. Last night we all went over to the house of a couple I went to college with -- their son is just about litho, jr.'s age and despite living halfway across the country from us, the two boys have become good friends. My friends are both Jewish, although he was raised in a non-practicing home.
The conversation turned to family history. Mom started telling stories about the town in the Pale her parents had emigrated from, then wistfully recalled the only thing that remains in that town today is an obelisk in memory of the Nazis' victims. Everybody was killed. She then told the story of how my dad's unit vandalized the house of a German woman. Apparently the owner had received my dad and his buddies graciously, offering them food and asking the soldiers only that they treat her chinaware with care -- as it was the most precious thing she owned. The next day, the troops discovered the Nazi extermination camp right next door to her house. After liberating the victims, they returned to their host's home and systematically broke every one of her plates -- acting on the theory that she had to have known what was happening, and that her silence made her complicit in the crime.
I piped in with the story of Burg's father's escape from the Nazis, with the help of his German landlady and then our host told of an oral history his aunt had once given him. After his father died, his aunt was the last living relative of the generation that had fled the Soviets after the Bolshevik Revolution. My friend began calling her on the phone to learn something of where he had come from. In the midst of the stories about this aunt and that uncle and where everyone wound up, the aunt slipped in, "well, your grandfather was in New York and invited us to come live with him. Not everyone had the money and some didn't want to travel that far, so much of the family decided to go to Germany instead. We haven't heard from them since."
We were Jews telling stories about the Holocaust. It's not something we do everyday -- I've known this couple for twenty-five years, and we'd never had this particular conversation before -- but something in the dynamic of the evening led us to that point. A certain bond was forming among us, but my mother was also starting to get uncomfortable with the tragic turn the conversation had taken. She wanted to change the subject.
But first it was mrs. litho's turn. My wife is not Jewish -- she's from Chile, and a Catholic. But she was listening to our talk, was moved by it, and wanted to share. So she told the story of her uncle, who was in the Chilean Navy on September 11, 1973 -- the day Augusto Pinochet bombed the Presidential Palace and overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende. My wife's uncle supported Allende, and his officers knew it. He disappeared for five years, and emerged from Pinochet's dungeons a changed man. I tried to take the opportunity to build off my wife's story, to tell the story of my friend Antonio, the only other person I know personally who suffered at the hands of Pinochet's torturers. But mom felt it was time to move on, and she interrupted me to tell about her Tanta Rivke, her socialite aunt, who left the fast life of New York behind to move to a moshav in the Yishuv (as the Zionists called Israel before the state was formed) with her Polish husband in the late 1920s.
Now, I do understand why my mom wanted to change the subject, but even before she did I felt there was a dissonance between my wife's story and the others and I wonder why it is there. There is of course a question of scale, as the enormity of Hitler's crime -- the genocidal destruction of European Jewry -- makes Pinochet's -- the destruction of the dream of a democratic transition to socialism -- pale in comparison. But on a different level, on the level of human tragedy, of human suffering, of the way we as individuals experience the pain of these huge national and international crimes there is in fact something similar between what mrs. litho experienced when tio Garo was carried off and what so many Jews lived through in Europe in the 1930s.
Her experience of political violence, in fact, is much more direct than my own. I learned of the Holocaust first in Hebrew school, then in school, and not until I was an adult did I learn that I had lost relatives to Hitler. All my great grandparents had already emigrated to the US before Hitler even took power. The Holocaust for me is not a personal experience.
Garo, however, is the brother of my wife's late father. She knew him before he disappeared (she was almost twelve when the coup happened), and she knew him after he reappeared. She saw the change in him, and she still wonders why her uncle became such a quiet man after his experience. She knows, of course, what happened to him, at least in general terms -- like most torture victims, Garo has never spoken publicly of what they did -- and she also knows intellectually about the symptoms of PTSD. Her wonder is that of a person, a human being, a little niece now grown into an adult who witnesses first hand how a man can become a broken shell and rebuild his life upon the ruins of what he once had been.
Burg writes of Israel's silence or complicity when faced with genocide in Kosovo, in Rwanda, in East Timor, and asks how a nation founded on the idea of overcoming the Shoah and of preventing its reoccurrence can fail to act in such circumstances. My question is a little bit different. Where can we, is it even possible, to find universality in the kind of suffering inflicted by states for political ends?
Jews take our identity today not just from our thousands of years of diaspora and mistreatment but more specifically from the particular suffering our people endured at the hands of Hitler. I saw that happening last night. Yet our experience is not unique, it is one among many. Hitler's genocide may have been on a greater scale, it may have been more successful than most in achieving its objective, but it is not the twentieth century's only attempt to destroy an entire people or an idea that unites them.
Burg offers a new vision of Judaism in which our experience can be universalized and provide the foundation for global peace. After my experience last night, though I wonder. Is identity too strong? Are we condemned to live divided into separate and unique warring groups?
Update: I honestly did not expect this diary to make the rec list, and I am honored and humbled that it did. As I am equally honored and humbled by all the wonderful comments and interesting discussions taking place here. Somehow, for some reason, I was able to compose an appropriate New Year's diary -- in the Jewish sense of New Year's as a time for reflection, atonement, and starting anew.
Unfortunately, I have work to do today so I won't be able to keep up with the discussion. Peace to all, and thank you again.