Europe’s foundations are constructed upon ashes and dust. They are built where the walls of the ghettos were once erected around overcrowded quarters in Warsaw, Łódź, and Krakow. They are built upon the pits of Babi Yar and the mass graves made across Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine. They are built upon the ruins of the camps whose names are forever branded on our collective memory: Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor.
Europe exists because of the Holocaust – it is forever tied to that awful past. Through education, commemoration, and memorialisation, the peoples of Europe are constantly borne back to the horrific events which preceded our zero hour, in the knowledge that they were of our own making and that it is our responsibility as a continent to ensure such things never occur again. European institutions exist precisely in order to prevent another war to end all wars, another war of imperialism, slavery, and annihilation.
By extension, Europe also exists in order to protect those who were the victims of the last great war and Hitler’s campaign of racial and biological purification, including and perhaps above all the Jewish people. Ensuring the safety and allowing for the political, economic, and cultural flourishing of European Jewry is or should be one of postwar Europe’s founding principles. It is an obligation of national governments and the European community to uphold it at all costs.
The nations of Europe have indeed succeeded in preventing another war, another catastrophe, yet across the continent conditions for Jews are worsening. In 2012, recorded anti-Semitic hate crimes increased by 30 percent year-on-year, ranging from physical violence to the vandalism of synagogues and cemeteries. This was not, as it has been in the past, a phenomenon linked to events in the Middle East, a revulsion at times of conflagration and unrest in Gaza or Lebanon. Rather, there has been an overall deterioration in the economic and political state of Europe, with Jews suffering disproportionately as a consequence.
Back in 2008, it looked like the living conditions of Holocaust survivors were, at long last, to significantly improve. A state commission of enquiry, headed by retired Judge Dalia Dorner, concluded that there should be major increases in money directed to survivors, and the government agreed.
Five years on, ask most survivors and they’ll tell you that nothing has changed. A survey of survivors by the Tel Aviv-based Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel has just reported that 56% of survivors surveyed take the view that there has been no change in the way the government treats them since the commission of enquiry. It conducted its survey ahead of Yom Hashoah next week.
The Foundation found that some 67% of survivors are dissatisfied with the way the state treats them.
Shockingly, it found that a fifth of Holocaust survivors living in Israel have skipped at least one meal in the last year due to financial worries. One in eight survivors found that in the last year they could not afford all the medicines they needed; that more than half can’t afford all their monthly living costs; that more than one in three faces financial difficulties; and that only 6% say they are free of economic problems.
With a new government in place in Jerusalem, a new Knesset, and lots of new optimistic promises in the Israeli political sphere, these statistics five years after a government actually adopted a state commission of enquiry underscores just how far proposals for change can get without actually being translated in to reality.
Prior to Holocaust Memorial Day — officially commemorated across Europe on Sunday — a Book of Commitment was placed in the British House of Commons for Members of Parliament to sign. The purpose of this simple act is to “publicly commit both to remembering the Holocaust and to working towards a future in which prejudice and hatred are never again allowed to gain a foothold in society.”
After placing his name in the Book, however, David Ward (MP for Bradford East) felt it necessary to issue an addendum of sorts on his website. His postlude could hardly have been more opposite to the spirit of his earlier dedication to tolerance and reflection, replicating as they did what Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks calls one of the “great slanders of our time: that Jews, victims of the Holocaust, are now perpetrators of a similar crime.” Here is what Ward wrote:
Having visited Auschwitz twice - once with my family and once with local schools - I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.
In the hours following the public dissemination of his comments, instead of showing the sort of shame and penitence such barefaced bigotry demands, Ward reached for his shovel, thumping and scratching at the scarred earth beneath him. Initially, Ward attempted to utilise a quote from Elie Wiesel in his defence.
“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” he cited in part. Wiesel did not much care for this: “Although he quotes me correctly, I am outraged that he uses my words at the same time he utters shameless slanders on the State of Israel.”
Readers might not expect a lot of historical analysis from the British tabloid The Daily Mail. But it shouldn’t be too much for the editors to at least remember Nazi Germany and some of its signature evil.
That’s why it was particularly disturbing to see this item uncovered by the Twittersphere this morning from a piece published last month by columnist Dominique Jackson, in which she somehow forgot to mention the concentration camp provenance of the notorious slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
The German slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” is somewhat tainted by its connection with Nazi concentration camps, but its essential message, “work sets you free” still has something serious to commend it. There is dignity to be gained from any job, no matter how menial, and for young people at the start of their careers, there are valuable lessons to be learned from any form of employment, whether that is on the factory floor, on a supermarket till or in the contemporary hard labour camp of a merchant bank or law office.
The ongoing protests against the exclusion of women from the public sphere by some Haredim, and counter-protests by Haredi activists who say they are maligned by critics, have everyone in Israel talking. The subject was quite provocative enough.
And then came the Holocaust reference to make it even more so. On New Year’s Eve night, 1,500 Haredim protested in Jerusalem against what they termed “incitement” of secular Israelis against them. Some of them also donned mock outfits from Nazi death camps and yellow stars.
The Jerusalem Post publishes a picture of some protestors kitted out in stars.
It quotes one of the protesters saying: “What’s happening is exactly like what happened in Germany.” He elaborated: “It started with incitement and continued to different types of oppression. Is it insulting that we wear these stars? Absolutely, and it hurts people to see this, but this is how we feel at the moment, we feel we are being prevented from observing the Torah in the manner in which we wish.”
It’s 1939 for the Jews all over again. That, at least, would seem to be the case according to Glenn Beck, who was the keynote speaker at Sunday’s annual gala of the Zionist Organization of America. Using apocalyptic language, the former FOX news commentator said that that Jews have it “worse today” than they did in the Weimar Republic, because, he said, Israel is under siege.
“How much trouble is Israel in? Stop thinking of it so big. It’s personal,” he said. “It was said earlier tonight, a mad man spoke in the 1930s and the world did not listen. It is worse today, because mad men speak, and the world hears and it is aiding and abetting.”
Beck was awarded the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson Defender of Israel Award, in part because of his vocal criticism of George Soros, the Jewish philanthropist who said that a recent uptick in anti-Semitism is due in part to the policies of the State of Israel.
“I know the power of the foes of Israel,” Beck said at the ZOA gala, “the earthly foes of Israel.”
As editors, we are always looking for stories that will resonate with our readers, tales that will connect with them in some deep and meaningful way. And when we hear that a story we’ve published has had a big impact, it causes us to stop and savor the thought that our work has made a difference.
In my inbox came word from Rivka Schiller about the continuing ripple effect of her story “Ties That Bind” that was published in the August 19 edition of the Forward. “I thought that you…would like to know about the impact that you have had on the lives of others.”
Rivka’s story told of how a young boy, Walter Saltzberg, had hid from the Nazis, survived the bombing of the Warsaw Ghetto, and lived in a hole with other Jews for five months, surviving on water and a bag of rotten onions. Because he had a broken leg, and moaned involuntarily from the pain, some of those hiding in the crawlspace with him wanted to kill him rather that risk capture. Walter, 13 at the time, was protected from harm by Peter Jablonski, six years his senior, who later became a lifelong friend.
Rivka entered the story 65 years later because of her job as an archivist at YIVO and her continuing interest in learning more about her grandmother. Rivka was reading through microfilm when she spotted a Forverts story from 1946 that mentioned the orphanage in Poland where her grandmother had worked after the war.
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Philadelphia offers an annual list of The Ten Most Absurd Statements About Allies’ Responses to the Holocaust. The list is a high point in the institute’s unceasing mission to keep the heat on President Franklin D. Roosevelt for having done nothing to stop the Nazi genocide (other than winning World War II and defeating Hitler, for whatever that’s worth).
In the spirit of this tradition, I am introducing a new feature that I call The Most Absurd Press Release of the Labor Day Holiday Weekend in Pursuit of an Obsessive Historical Grudge. The winner, I’m pleased to announce, is “Golda Meir Sought Bombing of Auschwitz, Researchers Find,” issued September 3 by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Philadelphia.
The press release touts a newly-published 2,900-word report from the Wyman Institute, based on recently discovered documents, showing that Meir wrote to a colleague in Washington in 1944 and urged him to press for the bombing of the death camp.
Bombing Auschwitz was an action some Jewish activists advocated during World War II as a way to shut down the camp’s killing machine. Under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, the War Department refused to divert its planes for the purpose, on the claim that it would divert precious resources from the war effort. The debate continues to rage nearly seven decades later as the centerpiece of a larger debate over whether the Roosevelt administration could have saved Jews from extermination, whether anti-Semitism was behind the refusal and whether the Jewish community leadership of the day was too timid, or too loyal to Roosevelt, to face down FDR and force his hand.
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