At 111, Dr. Alexander Imich may be the oldest living Holocaust survivor. / YouTube
As a writer for a Yiddish newspaper and as a Yiddish translator, I spend a lot of time working with Holocaust survivors and their writings. I’ve spent upwards of 1000 hours conducting oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors and translating Holocaust testimony. Recording, preserving and sharing these stories is a large part of my day-to-day life. So although I’d hardly consider myself an expert on the topic, the Holocaust plays a much greater role in my life than it does for the average 20-something American Jew.
That’s why I was taken aback last week when I realized that I couldn’t answer a colleague’s seemingly simple question: “Who ‘counts’ as a Holocaust survivor?” The question arose after the inimitable Alice Herz-Sommer died at 110 years old on February 23. Herz-Sommer, a gifted pianist who knew Kafka in her youth, survived the Theresiendstadt concentration camp in her early 40s along with her son Raphael. Herz-Sommer’s life, musical career and indomitable spirit are recalled in the Oscar-winning film “The Lady in Number 6.”
Although Herz-Sommer was widely described as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor at the time of her death, I believe there is an older survivor living in New York City. Dr. Alexander Imich, with whom I conducted an oral history interview in July, was born in Czestochowa, Poland on February 4, 1903. That makes him 111.
Art historian Meike Hoffmann speaks to the media regarding the seizure in 2011 of 1,500 paintings from Cornelius Gurlitt in Germany. / Getty Images
It looks like the German lawmakers will be too late.
Cornelius Gurlitt’s spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, announced today that Gurlitt’s lawyers filed a complaint at an Augsburg court, arguing that tax authorities’ seizure of the Gurlitt art collection was disproportionate and asking for the immediate return of the reportedly Nazi-looted works.
“In light of the immense public interest and political debate, we have a reasonable concern about the legality of this process,” defense attorney Derek Setz said. Is it irony or intent that this complaint was filed last Friday — the same day that a bill proposing retroactive abolition of the statute of limitations for claims on Nazi-looted art was filed and accepted to be discussed by the Upper House of the German Parliament?
In September 2010, customs officers caught Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Nazi-dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, on a train from Zurich to Munich, carrying €9,000 in cash. Nothing illegal there. But the fact that he had traveled to Zurich the same morning, together with his nervous behavior, initiated a court-ordered tax investigation in 2011, which led to the 2012 search of Gurlitt’s home and the seizure of about 1,400 works of art by the authorities. The case became public in November 2013 through a leak to the German magazine Focus.
The ruins of a gas chamber at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp / Getty Images
Lying at the heart of every political position I hold is an undying faith in human fallibility. Not only might we get things wrong, we will get things wrong – just as we got things wrong last week and last year and last war, forever and ever, back and back, all the way into our misty past.
Fortunately, history is chock-a-block with examples that prove my faith to be unassailable. In fact, it’s hard to know which example would be most illustrative here. Knowing the world is flat? Check. How about knowing we’d be greeted as liberators? Check and check. Or no, I have one: Gas chambers.
Gas chambers. Just saying the words fills the mind with horror and images unbidden – though I’ll bet they don’t involve Wyoming.
But for all that, Wyoming is where the topic of gas chambers was most recently raised, in the context of a broader conversation about the death penalty and America’s growing awareness that we were wrong when we thought that execution by lethal injection might not be a cruel and unusual punishment – because as the horrifying story that recently emerged from Ohio’s death row indicates, a whole lot of suffering can fit into just a couple of needles.
So what are some of America’s politicians suggesting instead? A reconsideration of sentencing procedures, a re-examination of the legal foundation for death penalty policies? No. They’re suggesting firing squads. The electric chair. Gas chambers.
Milan — Today, many European countries — including Germany, Italy and the UK — are observing the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day. What makes this particular Holocaust Remembrance Day peculiar in Italy is the fact that quite a few public intellectuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have called for its abolition. Well, that and the fact that three pig heads have just been sent to three major Jewish sites in Rome, in an apparent mafia-style attempt at intimidation.
Among the public figures explicitly calling for the abolition of Holocaust Remembrance Day are Elena Loewenthal, a renowned Jewish writer who just published the pamphlet Contro il Giorno Della Memoria (Against the Day of Memory), and Giuliano Ferrara, a devoutly Catholic conservative pundit who wrote a much discussed editorial on the topic last month.
The utility and raison d’être of Holocaust Remembrance Day have often been questioned since it was established in the early 2000s. Allow me to sum up the main arguments most commonly presented against this day, in an effort to better explain why, no matter how flawed it may be, I’m still convinced that Europe needs Holocaust Remembrance Day.
A Swedish punk rocker with a swastika tattoo. / Getty Images
I’ve always wanted to visit Nashville, Tenn. On my recent trip there, I had every bit as much fun as I suspected I would. But I also saw something that made me gasp out loud.
Downtown, I stumbled upon a tattoo shop. Being a person with tattoos (controversially, a Jew with tattoos), I decided to stop in and do some pricing. Perusing the flash art wall, I saw the typical assortment of symbols, animals, sayings, suggestive cartoons, etc. Then a particular design caught my eye: an eagle’s head with a swastika inside it.
I wondered how I could actually be seeing this. I had been enjoying my trip so much, and this was casting a cloud over it. Do people actually come into the shop to get that terrible symbol inked on them? I wanted to go and say something to the shop staff members, who seemed extremely friendly, but since I was more or less a stranger in a strange land I decided it was best to keep mum.
Back home I told several people about my experience, and they were all appalled. After all, even though bigotry and hatred can happen anywhere, they definitely should not be catered to. I “liked” the company’s page on Facebook so that I could post on it to let staff and patrons know how I felt. My feeling — and hope — was that the design was due to ignorance, since the Jewish population in Nashville is not at all like New York City’s.
The former Jewish ghetto on the banks of the Tiber in central Rome. / Getty Images
Should Jews living in the Diaspora feel ashamed of being, well, Jews living in the Diaspora? A growing number of European Jews, it seems, believe the answer is yes. But when did we start buying into this narrative?
I’ve been asking myself this question lately because of a debate that’s going on here in Italy. It has to do with the opportunity to build a Holocaust museum. A very well known conservative pundit, Giuliano Ferrara, recently criticized the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna, who dared to protest the fact that Italy doesn’t have such a museum. Ferrara suggested Jews worry less about “the anti-Semitism of the past” and focus on more urgent issues, such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
What struck me most was the reaction I saw in the Italian Jewish press and online forums. A number of people sided with the right-wing commentator, claiming that building a memorial for the Holocaust would actually be inappropriate. Why? Because it would promote a Diasporic idea of Judaism!
Emanuele Segre Amar, a Jewish leader who serves as deputy chair of the Jewish community of Turin, went so far as to claim that Holocaust memorials “promote the stereotype of the Jew as victim, docile, weak, assimilated and Diasporic.”
News that drunken revelers had, on New Year’s Eve, used Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as a urinal came shortly after The New York Times published an op-ed by Yascha Mounk on the conflicts of being a German Jew.
Together, these items create an image of a Germany not at ease with itself, of a nation that still hasn’t come to terms with its past and found a place in its social fabric for Jews or the memory of Jews. Mounk suggests Germany has swung between “a bout of philo-Semitism” and “a new mood of ‘enough is enough’” when it comes to processing the Second World War, adding:
Clearly, there was something artificial about the ritualistic displays of historical contrition that had long been central to public life in Germany. But to assert that the time had come to move beyond the past, once and for all, was no less artificial. Normality cannot be decreed by fiat.
Mounk is right, on the one hand, to suggest that after the Shoah, things can never be normal again, neither for Germany as a whole or German Jews in particular. “Increasingly, I realized that the mere mention of my heritage erected an invisible wall between my classmates and me,” Mounk writes. “I realized that even my most well-intentioned compatriots saw me as a Jew first, and a German second.”
But to suggest that Germany’s public struggle to come to terms with the past is in some form artificial does a disservice to what Germany has achieved since the end of the Second World War in this regard.
At first glance, it seems that Ani DiFranco has become the latest example of how a mix of star-fueled insulation from the real world and white privilege can lead to bad public relations. After an Internet-inspired backlash, the feminist singer-songwriter has canceled a musical retreat at a former slave plantation in Louisiana, now a resort that promotes the quaint imagery of antebellum life.
But the dreadlocked diva isn’t to blame. Many have wondered how the normally socially progressive artist could be so insensitive. The answer is that for more than a century, since the South lost the Civil War, it has buried the horror of slavery to such an extent that celebrating at a site of such human suffering doesn’t seem so absurd. That a place like the Nottoway Plantation, where DiFranco wanted to have her event, exists as a luxury destination for weddings and other celebrations is telling enough. This is just one example of both collective amnesia and resilient pride in a racist ideology.
The fact is that it’s not that hard for a society to publicly condemn its own past and actively work toward a better future. As Jews, we know that Germany’s monuments to the Holocaust explicitly define the dead as victims of the nation. Those who resisted have museums in their honor. The death camps, both in Germany and outside, remind us of the dark possibilities of the human spirit, a sign that regular people can participate in unspeakable evil. Nothing about that era is celebrated.
When her parents escorted 16-year-old Alice, my aunt, to the Vienna train station, her father was crying. Her mother on the other hand, remained strong and optimistic. “She said, ‘We’re going to see each other again,’” Alice, nicknamed Lizzie, remembered. ”And I was like, I’m going to England, and I’ll be able to improve my English.”
Seventy-five years ago today, on December 2, 1938, the first “Kindertransport” arrived from Germany in England. In the nine months that followed, around 10,000 children — including Lizzie — from Nazi-occupied areas travelled to England, and were placed in foster families, schools and shelters. British authorities agreed to grant visas, while private citizens and organizations had to find guarantors for the children up to the age of 17.
When Lizzie arrived, a doctor’s family from Liverpool took her in for half a year. When they moved to a smaller house, she was passed along to another foster family. Meanwhile, her father, a Jewish carpenter, managed to get his hands on a New York phone directory, and reached out to a cousin, who sent an affidavit and tickets for a ship. Once they had arrived in New York, they organized Lizzie’s passage. In June 1940, she arrived in the United States.
“It was incredible, so beautiful,” said Lizzie, who is now 91 and lives in Valley Stream, NY. She has remained in touch with her foster family in Liverpool, who treated her with respect and love, and is grateful to the people who took children they didn’t know into their families.
Lizzie left Vienna with her maternal cousin Fritz, who immigrated to Australia soon after his arrival in England. Ilse, Fritz’s younger sister, had left Vienna a few months earlier, and found refuge at a Quaker boarding school in the south of England.
“I came without knowing a word of English,” Ilse, now 87 and living in London, said. “It was very traumatic.”
Her father had died earlier that year. Her mother remained behind in Vienna. Also trapped were her maternal cousins, Hans and Herbert, as well as their parents. Having lost the family business — a furniture store — they had no money left to flee the country and were unable to get on a Kindertransport of their own.
In the fall of 1942, the remaining family members received a deportation notice. A family friend, a non-Jewish pediatrician, offered to hide Hans and Herbert in his Vienna apartment, risking his own life to help them. Herbert, who was 14, didn’t want to leave his parents, but 16-year-old Hans, my grandfather, agreed.
When the end of the war came, Ilse received a letter from Hans. “I thought ‘That’s the first one.’ I went to the hockey field, because I wanted to be alone to read it,” she said.
“I was shocked. It was the first one, and the last one, because no one else had survived.”
Anna Goldenberg is the Arts and Culture intern at the Forward. She also writes about Jewish issues and science for various Austrian publications. Follow her on Twitter @angoldna.
There are many positive things about social media. Selfies, or photos of themselves, taken by young people at Holocaust sites and memorials are not among them.
The German version of Vice magazine collected and published a bunch of these totally tasteless Instagram posts to drive home the point. Don’t read German? No worries. You just need to know how to read pictures—and, of course, also hashtags—to understand just how offensive this stuff is.
Check out the one of the girl giving two mitten-clad thumbs up at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “Thumbs up if you’re chilly willy #krakow #poland #auschwitz # birkenau #tour #travels #holidays #chilly #willy #ww2 #worldwar2” is how she tagged it.
There’s also the one of the girl who lined up her photo to make it look like a Star of David was growing out of her head. “#juden #arbeitmachtfrei #treblinka #zyklon B #feelgood.” Hey, don’t we all feel good when visiting sites of mass murder?
How about the one of a couple of guys “#chillin in #dachau,” or the one of the girl in a mini-dress posing at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial making sure everyone notices the important stuff—the “#chelseaboots”—she’s wearing.
Which of these other photos taken at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial is more appealing? The one of the girl jumping for joy at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial exclaiming “#holocaustmemorial #berlin #blocks #jump #tourist #happy #girl #weeeee”? Or would it be the picture tagged “#instacaust”? Hmm. It’s a toss up.
Despite how absurd this stuff seems, it really is happening. Samantha French, a 20-year-old New Yorker studying at the University of Sussex in Britain reports that she saw people taking these kinds of photos while visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 2012.
“…I saw a few tour groups just for school kids in which they were all taking pictures of themselves smiling in front of just about everything they saw, from the display of artificial limbs that had been recovered in the camp, to the wall in front of which many prisoners had been shot execution-style, to actually inside what remains of the gas chamber (despite a clear sign outside banning photography within the building),” she says. “In my own tour group, we had a couple who I think might have been Scandinavian who again did not put their cameras away throughout the entire tour.”
“In short, I think it’s disgusting,” French said. But, having studied the effects of social media, she isn’t surprised by this disturbing trend. “It is so easy to sway what people think of something just by joining a conversation about it on social media, and I think really that’s why this trend of people Instagramming photos of themselves by Holocaust memorial sites has become okay,” she explains.
“If one 12 year-old sees her friend do it when she goes to visit a memorial, she’ll think it’s acceptable to do that, as well, and so the snowball gets rolling. It’s just unfortunate that the people who know that making light of such serious issues is not okay aren’t as present in social media as kids with poor judgment.”
Many people know the story of how the King of Denmark donned a yellow star to identify with his Jewish subjects. But few people know that the story is a myth.
The tale is probably best known because of a scene in Leon Uris’s “Exodus,” published in 1958, in which an underground radio transmission reports that King Christian X “himself will wear the first Star of David and he expects that every loyal Dane will do the same.”
In 2001, the story made it to Congress, when Rep. Gary Ackerman lauded the Danish king and his fellow Danes for donning a yellow armband to foil the Nazi roundup of Denmark’s Jews.
“They were not Jews,” Ackerman said of Denmark’s citizens. “They were human beings.”
The myth has several versions. The most inspiring image has King Christian riding on horseback through the streets of Copenhagen while wearing the yellow star.
In fact, Danish Jews were never required to wear a yellow armband or a star, so the Danish king had no need to wear the star either.
No one knows where or how the story originated, but it predates by at least one year the attempted roundup of Denmark’s Jewish community.
Why did the Holocaust fail so spectacularly in Denmark while it succeeded in so many European countries? The peculiarities of the German occupation of Denmark may provide a clue.
Denmark surrendered almost immediately after being invaded in April 1940, and agreed to cooperate with Germany. In return, the Nazis installed a plenipotentiary as supreme commander in Copenhagen, and allowed the Danish government to maintain its sovereignty.
Then, as now, Danes had a strong social democracy. They viewed their well-integrated Jewish neighbors as equal citizens. Any attempt by the Nazis to single out Jews for special treatment was fiercely opposed by the Danish government.
Jews “were never seen as something different from just being Danes,” said Peter Taksoe-Jensen, Denmark’s current ambassador to the United States.
While other European Jews were being deported to death camps from 1942, Danish Jews continued to practice their religion freely and openly through most of 1943.
Bent Lexner, Denmark’s chief rabbi, said his parents had a huge Jewish wedding in Copenhagen in early 1943, something that would have been unimaginable elsewhere in occupied Europe.
Historians disagree on the merits of Denmark’s policy of cooperation with the Nazis.
The Danish historian Bent Bludnikow says that Denmark, in effect, collaborated with Germany. Danish agriculture and industry fed the Nazi war machine. Some Danish firms benefited from Jewish slave labor.
But Bo Lidegaard, editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper Politiken, says that because Denmark, which sits on Germany’s northern border, had a tiny army, resistance was futile.
There was an unusual moment at Yad Vashem today. As virtually all foreign dignitaries do, the head of the Anglican church went to Yad Vashem during his visit to Jerusalem. And there, he encountered his own Jewish heritage in a stark and poignant way.
As Archbishop of Canterbury, enthroned in March, Justin Welby leads the Church of England and the Anglican Communion worldwide. He also happens to be half-Jewish — his father was born Jewish.
The staff of Yad Vashem had dug out a Page of Testimony and archival information regarding a young Holocaust victim who was most one of his distant relatives. When he entered the Hall of Names, where the Pages of Testimony of Jewish victims of the Holocaust are housed, they gave it to him.
The Archbishop was visibly moved — he had tears in his eyes, and asked to be alone for a few moments before continuing his tour. The fact that he was there with his wife Caroline and son Peter added to the personal weight of the moment.
On a lighter side, Welby’s Jewish heritage makes him eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. It’s clear that he has a soft spot for Jerusalem — he revealed today that he was here on honeymoon 33 years ago. So perhaps he could stick around. Quick Nefesh B’Nefesh — catch him before he leaves.
While President Obama attended meetings in Berlin prior to his grand address at the Brandenburg Gate, First Lady Michelle Obama and their children, Malia and Sasha, visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Guided by the director of the site, Uwe Neumärker, the family spent half an hour among the 2,711 stone sarcophagi which range in height and rise and fall along the undulating ground across the five-acre site.
“They were impressed that we Germans have such a memorial in the centre of our city,” Neumärker later told the JTA. The First Lady in particular was said to have commented that the memorial “really has an aura.” But while the site has the White House seal of approval, since its opening in 2005 — in fact, even during the years preceding its construction — Peter Eisenman’s memorial has been controversial and divisive.
I have been to the memorial on several occasions at different times of day and night and at different times of year. With each visit, my impression of the site evolves and changes. Its scale – the memorial takes up an entire city block – can at times feel alienating and at others speaks to the scope and enormity of the catastrophe. Its logical, fashioned layout and the cool and unrelenting greyness of the stones can either feel distant and impersonal or like a statement about the cold, mechanised, and rationalised way in which the Holocaust was carried out, how it came to be faceless for those who were committing the crime.
In particular, I appreciate the way in which Memorial to the Murdered Jews has come to be the focal point for commemoration of the Jewish past in Berlin, a space for strangers to explore, wander, and wonder. When you walk down into the very centre of the memorial, sunken and enveloped by the looming columns, the sounds and sights of Berlin are eradicated. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe thus, at its best, creates the space for reflection and contemplation, or at the very least forces an emotional response through isolation and dislocation. At night, when the stelae hold back what little light there is, such thoughts and reactions are only heightened, deepened.
This is made possible by the memorial’s abstraction and ambiguity – nothing about it is guided or forced, each visitor granted the space to engage and have their own experience. But it is this indistinctness and the almost remote nature of the memorial that has beget criticism. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody stated that there is a vagueness about the memorial which is he finds “disturbing”. Indeed, without the full title, “it would be impossible to know what the structure is meant to commemorate; there’s nothing about these concrete slabs that signifies any of the words of the title, except, perhaps, ‘memorial.’”
This disconnection Brody identifies is indeed inescapable. For a site which proclaims itself to be specifically dedicated to the memory of murdered Jews, there is nothing particularly Jewish about it at all. By comparison, across the street is the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime, at which through a small window in a concrete cuboid, a movie depicting a kiss is visible. This scene is befitting as a symbol of defiance, “a lasting symbol against exclusion, intolerance and animosity towards gays and lesbians.” Whatever one thinks of the memorial and the film, it does at the very least fulfil its duty in this way.
There is no longer a Jewish community in Pristina, the capital of the newly independent country of Kosovo. Through flight, deportation, aliyah, and intermarriage, Jewish Pristina has over the past seventy years gradually diminished into non-existence.
During the era when Kosovo formed part of Yugoslavia, the government in Belgrade did not do much to discourage this trend. In fact, in 1963 as part of an effort to rationalize the centre of Pristina, the authorities demolished swaths of the city’s historic centre, including many Ottoman-era houses, a covered market, and various holy places including Pristina’s only synagogue. The gradual exodus of Jews thus came with an erasure of their physical presence.
Since independence in 2008, however, the new government of the Republic of Kosovo has sought to memorialize Pristina’s Jewish history. Not only does the government view such efforts as essential to Kosovo becoming a nation integrated into Europe, but it understands the parallels between the histories of Jews and Kosovar Albanians, both as persecuted peoples, peoples who have been the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and peoples whose ambitions at statehood have been rejected by the rest of their respective neighborhoods.
This process began in the summer of 2011, when students from Dartmouth and the American University in Pristina cooperated on an exploration of genocide, an exercise which culminated in the renovation of the city’s small Jewish cemetery. A new entrance was constructed, the site tidied, and the gravestones repaired, renovated, and replaced to their original location, the shards and slabs having previously been littered around and about.
But a few months later, the site was vandalised by neo-Nazis who spray-painted swastikas on the freshly-repaired gravestones, adding the words “Juden Raus” for good measure. Within 48 hours, municipal authorities cleaned the site. Today, while the grass has grown long around the burial places, the stones themselves – some of which are more than 100 years old – remain in place and intact.
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.”