An End to Ignorance — Volume 1 • May 1993

The Holocaust: A Crossroads

A Translation by Dorit Arad,
Israel Arts and Science Academy

The following article was translated by Dorit Arad, a student at Israel Arts and Science Academy, Jerusalem. Her introduction precedes the article itself.

Introduction: Finally, after months of promises, I finished working on this article. A few words before I begin — this article was written in a literary style. Since I am not a professional translator, some of the expressions in it had to be left out; many words had to be translated into entire sentences. I hope, however, this will not hurt the reading of the article, which is, by itself, a very beautiful one. —  Dorit Arad

The Holocaust: A Crossroads
By A.B. Yehoshua, from a Collection of Articles
Called The Privilege of Normalcy

There is no one who is not obliged to reconsider his world perception after the Holocaust. It is not another historical event which we can fit into prepared categories of a given world perception. The world after the Holocaust is not the same world as the one before it. The horizon of humanity has been broken before our eyes. There is a need to reconsider some of the basic concepts by which we live. We, the Jews, have to do it with reinforced powers. The Holocaust brought up several difficult questions, demanding new answers, or at least adaptations of the old ones. But we must know that on the experience of the Holocaust that different, and sometimes contradictory, world perceptions can be reinforced. From that point of view, we must see the Holocaust as some [kind of] historical crossroad, from which different roads lead to different directions where traveling on each of those roads can justify itself, based on this aspect or another. This lesson or another emerges out of the complex darkness of this immense event. I will try to point out briefly some of the contradictory options deriving from this crossroad.

The world is basically a jungle, [where] values have no meaning; international justice has no meaning. WW II showed...the value of international guarantees....

The Holocaust may be seized by metaphysical concepts, showing the inability of the rational mind to understand the world. From that point of view, the Holocaust can enforce a tendency of religious perception. And in the phrasing of God's reply to Job, one can get close to the world of the Holocaust only in religious terms. Despite the fatal wound which the Jewish people suffered in the Holocaust, it still exists, and this is another proof of the special Godly protection accompanying it. The religious Jew can, based on the experience of the Holocaust, reinforce his faith, and can practically feel the grace of God. Standing on the edge of total destruction, and still, in spite of all this, the [Jewish] people have risen from the ashes. An impotent feeling can be born after the Holocaust.

But from the same crossroad leads another way, as clear as the first one. The Holocaust gave total and final proof that there is no, and never was, a God in heaven. How can one keep believing in a theology that speaks of Godly protection, of reward and punishment, of the grace of God, when facing a million slaughtered children in the concentration camps? What is the meaning of a God who allows such a Holocaust? What is the meaning of a religious sin when facing the total lack of distinction made by the Nazis between a tsadik [holy man] and an evil man? The uniqueness of the Jewish people also becomes totally vague in the face of similar destruction of the Gypsies. If one doubted the existence of God before the Holocaust, it came and gave final confirmation to his doubts. WW II has shown the nature of international relations and their meaning.

The world is basically a great jungle, [where] values have no meaning; international justice has no meaning. WW II showed the real value of international guarantees and the use of signed treaties. The obvious conclusion from the experience of this war is that every nation can trust only itself, be strong and always prepared against attack and betrayal. Never give up on the basis of petty promises, and never ignore international justice values. This world is a world of man to man-wolf, and if you want to survive, you have to be a strong and prepared wolf.

But a totally different perception can find its justification on the basis of WW II experience. Here is where brutal and selfish nationalism can lead us. Only by profound persistence to change the world is there a chance to survive. We, the Jews, must be active partners in changing the world. There is a need to reinforce international organizations, to enlarge the fellowship between people, to merge races and nations.

After all, the free world beat the Nazi monster not only by force but also by spirit. The victory gives hope to a new order, and only by protecting the order which seeks values and justice is there a chance to defend ourselves from the recurrence of Nazism.

The Holocaust provided absolute proof to all those who believed in a special Jewish destiny. In WW II, we could watch in horror how much our destiny and place in the world were essentially different from the destiny and place of other people. The yellow badge that was pinned to the Jew's clothing only represented physically what has always been known, that we were different from everybody else, and to anyone who tried to escape from this unique and special destiny the Holocaust came and slapped his face. The different historical path of the Jewish people was only reinforced through the horrible experience of the Holocaust.

But others could say, on the basis of the same experience, that the Holocaust did prove the total need for urgent normalization of the Jewish people; the need to place us as an equal rights and duties people among the family of man.

The Holocaust can give final and absolute proof to the fact that there is no way to escape the Jewish identity. Jews who have tried to change their religion and [integrate] or to deny their identity were returned by force to their people. We had better all identify as Jews of our own will, and from internal bonding and a better understanding of our uniqueness and destiny, we can face every grueling [occurrence] in the future in a more dignified and braver way.

But could we complain about those whose conclusion is the opposite on the basis of the same facts — those who say that if it is the special destiny of the Jewish people, better run away from it as long as it is an option? Their conclusion from the Holocaust experience is, therefore, a fast escape from this tribe, so at least their descendants would avoid a similar destiny in the future, in the same way that the descendants of the Jews who assimilated in earlier generations escaped from the Holocaust.

I have only noted here a few possibilities of contradictory interpretations based on the same complex historical experience exposed to us during WW II. On the basis of the same facts, the conclusions can be contradictory — desperation of the world against faith and a will to correct it. The enforcement of the claim of the mysterious power of God, or the opposite — a total loss of faith. Destiny or freedom. Normalization of the Jewish existence or an absolute proof of the non-normalization of the same existence. Every interpretation has its reasons, every interpretation has its proofs. The Holocaust experience as a huge crossroads offers a large variety of historical conclusions. No wonder that in Israel, for example, both the extreme right and the left adopted the Holocaust as a powerful center of identification. At this terrible crossroad, each one must decide his ideological decision and take the road he has chosen. He must remember that his opinion [represents] only one of the roads, and despite his ideological opposition to the other roads, he must acknowledge the legitimacy of contradictory interpretations based on the Holocaust experience. The ideological fight [grounded] in the interpretation of the Holocaust and the deduction of historical conclusions from it must be sustained, if not with hesitation, then at least with patience and honor. Before such a powerful event, we all lower ourselves.

The Holocaust is the final and absolute proof of the failure of the Diaspora....

If there was any illusion about our ability to find our place in the world in the existence of a people [disseminated] among other people, the Holocaust brought the final proof of where this way of existence might lead us. The Holocaust proved to all believers in the destiny of the Jewish people to spread a certain spiritual annunciation among the people by this kind of existence, of what is the real answer of the people to that mission. And there is no greater symbolism than that of the Germans, for whom we had such a wonderful feeling of spiritual mission, accompanied with great theories of spiritual symbiosis (Herman Cohen and others, and the place of the Jews in the culture and intellectual life of Germany on the eve of the Holocaust). They were those who gave us this absolute answer.

The Holocaust has proven to us how dangerous is an abnormal existence between people; how dangerous can the illegitimacy be in our reality among people. It was easy for the Nazis to destroy us and involve other people in our destruction, if by action and if by silence, because we did not have a legitimate status in the world. We were outside history, unlike other people. Because we were different in our ways of living, different from everybody else, it was easy to regard us as nonhumans, and as nonhumans, our blood became cheap. The first to be caught, in every national concussion and every social unrest, was the Jews.

The Nazi insanity was only a radical aspect of the collective psychopathology, waking, or capable of waking, before the obscure existence of the Jews among the people. The indistinct identity of even parts of the people, our double loyalty to the people among whom we live and to the Jewish people dispersed in different countries, our link to another homeland — all of these are constant potential sources of conflict during national crises, over which we have no control. Indulgence, humanism, religious pluralism — all of these ate away the thin layers of protection that disrupt quickly when pressed by a national interest or a social crisis....

The Holocaust, laying on us a heavy burden, is also facing clear challenges before us. As sons of the victims, we have the duty to carry to the world the word of some clear lessons.

We, as the victims of the Nazi virus, must be the carriers of the antibodies to this horrible disease.

The first lesson is a deep rejection of racism and nationalism. In our flesh, we have seen the price of extreme nationalism and racism, and we must therefore reject those revelations, not only regarding the past and ourselves, but we must also reject them everywhere and towards every people. We must carry the flag of anti-racism in all of its shapes and forms. Nazism is not only a German phenomenon, but a general humanitarian one, against which no people, and I repeat, no people, is immune.

After WW II, the question was asked, how did it happen that as civilized and developed a nation as the Germans, a people which has given genius creators in the departments of humanities and arts, fell to the level of such loathsome crime? A few historians and "Germanists" tried to prove that Nazism actually was always potentially planted in the German people, and this world perception has its roots in the German spirit and mentality. This theory has tried to prove that the German people basically has criminal potential, and the special German combination of deep nationalism with a sense of order and blind obedience by themselves could cause Nazism. According to this theory, there is also no chance for the Germans to be different, and from this point of view they are also born criminals, and we must keep an eye on them and always keep them in a lower status, in order to prevent another outburst. Based on the same assumption, there is also no reason to morally accuse them — they were born with it.

It seems to me that the years which have passed since WW II have proven the mistake in those kinds of theories. Germany of today (I am talking of democratic western Germany) is indeed another Germany. It is a state which has freedom, democracy and strict respect of human rights. It is, therefore, absolute proof that Nazism is not a necessity for the Germans, but a point of view and a way of living that they chose, and were therefore morally responsible for. Let us not forget, Hitler was elected in general and free elections by the majority of the people, who cooperated with him all along the way. The fact that Germany can indeed be different shows that Nazism was not forced on her but chosen by her. And from here [is placed] the historical and moral responsibility of the Germans for what was done.

But the years that have passed have also shown us, unfortunately, that the Nazi phenomenon is possible among other nations. The horrors have not yet reached the peak of WW II, but the events in Biafra, Bangladesh or Cambodia are not that far from the power of the Nazi slaughter.

We, as victims of the Nazi virus, must be the carriers of the antibodies to this horrible disease which can attack any nation. And as carriers of this disease, we must be careful towards ourselves in the first place.

As carriers of the anti-Nazi message, we must sharpen our sensitivity and not blunt it. For we must remember that the fact that we still have victims doesn't give us a moral stand. The victim does not become moral because of his being a victim. The Holocaust, with the terrible [things] that it did to us, did not give us an eternal justification card. It only made the murderers immoral, but not the victims moral. To be moral, you must do moral things. And the test is constant and daily.

When we examine the Holocaust and wonder how it was possible, we realize how little and poor our information was about those horrors during the war. Many times we ask ourselves how did a large part of humanity live (including Jewish people in Israel) with an almost total lack of information about what was happening in Occupied Europe. And if we did know what was really going on there, was it possible that we had a way to help more? The question of blocking the line of communication is not only an objective question of a situation caused by the totalitarian government which took good care to hide the horror from the world; this blocking was also driven by an internal refusal to know what was going on, a refusal to search for every bit of information that could give a clearer picture of what was going on. The importance of human communication, the opening of communication lines, the cultivation of journalism and other means of communication is one of the clear lessons of this period. And it appears to me that the world after the Holocaust, the Western world, understood that well, and tries the best it can to ensure a situation where concealment and suppression will not be possible. The fight over free communication is one of the most important fights to prevent the recurrence of these kind of horrors. We have seen that in our fight for the faith of the Jews of the Soviet Union; we see that in other fights around the world. Again, as carriers of the anti-Nazi and anti-totalitarian message, we must be the first ones to fight for freedom of information and mind. All who wish to shut a person's mouth, even by arguments of security and solidarity, will eventually grow the seed of evil. Better an open society with a wild flow of information than denial, hiding and suppression.

And in the end, as Jewish as the Holocaust experience may seem, it has eternal meaning to humanity in its entirety. Even if many years go by, man will return to study that period, because the events of this terrible war expanded the concept of man, the horizon of possibilities of man. It has taught us things we didn't know of the nature of man. The concept of man, for better and for worse, after the Holocaust, is not the same concept as the one that existed before it. We understand man better after the Holocaust. True, we have always known that man can do both the most terrible evil and the most wonderful good; and still, the Holocaust has shown us a new depth of evil to which man can arrive, but also the power of survival. Musselmen in concentration camps, who were considered almost biologically "dead," still made moral decisions and shared their last pieces of bread with their friends. Side by side with the awful desperation, hope can also be born. We who were there, and went out of there can and, I think, also must, lift the flag of faith in mankind.

— Translated by Dorit Arad

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