The Holocaust causes us all to ask of ourselves the same question: What would I have done?
What would I have done if I was a Jew in Berlin in 1933, when Hitler rose to power? Would I have run? Would I have sold my house, my business? Removed my children from school in the middle of the year? Or would I have said to myself: it will pass, it is just momentary madness, Hitler says all these things because he is a politician seeking election. Yes, he’s anti-Semitic, but who isn’t? We’ve been through worse than this. It’s better to wait, to keep my head down. It will pass.
What would I do if I was a German in Berlin on the 18th October 1941, when the first train left this platform, heading East and on it 1,013 Jews – children, women, the elderly — all destined for death.
I don’t ask what I would have done if I was a Nazi, but what would I have done if I was an honest German man, waiting for his train here? A German citizen the same age I am now, with three children like mine. A man who educated his children on the values of basic human decency and the right to life and respect? Would I have remained silent? Would I have protested? Would I have been one of the few Berliners to join the anti-Nazi underground, or one of the many Berliners who carried on with life and pretended that nothing was happening?
And what if I was one of the 1,013 Jews on that train? Would I have boarded the train? Would I have smuggled my 18-year-old daughter to the northern forests? Would I have told my two sons to fight until the end? Would I have dropped my suitcase and started to run? Or would I have attacked the guards in the black uniforms and died an honorable, quick death instead of dying slowly of hunger and torture?
I think I know the answer. I think you do too.
None of the 1,013 Jews departing for their deaths fought the guards. Not them and not the tens of thousands who followed them from this place. Neither did my grandfather, Bela Lampel, when a German soldier took him from his home late at night on the 18th March 1944. “Bitte,” said his mother — my great-grandmother Hermine — to the German soldier. She slowly got down on her knees and hugged the soldiers boots. “Bitte, don’t forget that you also have a mother.” The soldier didn’t say a word. He didn’t know that from the bed, hiding under the duvet, my father was looking at him. A Jewish boy of 13 who over night became a man.
Why didn’t they fight? That is the question that haunts me. That is the question that the Jewish people have struggled with since the last train left for Auschwitz. And the answer – the only answer – is that they didn’t believe in the totality of evil.
They knew, of course, that there were bad people in the world, but they didn’t believe in total evil, organized evil, without mercy or hesitation, cold evil that looked at them but didn’t see them, not even for a moment, as human.
According to their murderers, they weren’t people. They weren’t mothers or fathers, they weren’t somebody’s children. According to their murderers, they never celebrated the birth of a child, never fell in love, never took their old dog for a walk at two in the morning or laughed until they cried at the latest comedy by Max Ehrlich.
That’s what you need to kill another man. To be convinced that he isn’t a man at all. When the murderers looked upon the people who departed from this platform on their final journey they didn’t see Jewish parents, only Jews. They weren’t Jewish poets or Jewish musicians, only Jews. They weren’t Herr Braun or Frau Schwartz, only Jews.
Destruction starts with the destruction of identity. It is no surprise that the first thing done to them, when they arrived at Auschwitz, was to tattoo a number on their arm. It is hard to kill Rebecca Grunwald, a beautiful, fair-haired 18-year-old romantic, but Jew number 7762 A is easy to murder. Yet it remains the same person.
Seventy-five years later, do we know any more? Do we understand more?
The Holocaust placed before Israel a dual challenge:
On the one hand it taught us that we must survive at any price, and be able to defend ourselves at any price. Trainloads of Jews will never again depart from a platform anywhere in the world. The security of the State of Israel and its citizens must forever be in our hands alone. We have friends, and I stand here among friends. The new Germany has proven its friendship to Israel time and again, but we must not, and we cannot, rely on anyone but ourselves.
On the other hand, the Holocaust taught us that no matter the circumstances we must always remain moral people. Human morality is not judged when everything is ok, it is judged by our ability to see the suffering of the other, even when we have every reason to see only our own.
The Holocaust cannot be compared, and must not be compared, to any other event in human history. It was, in the words of the author K. Zetnik, a survivor of Auschwitz, “another planet.” We must not compare, but we must always remember what we learned.
A war like the one we fight today, which looks likely to continue and which the civilized world — whether it wants to or not — will be a part of, causes the two lessons we learned from the Holocaust to stand opposite one another.
The need to survive teaches us to strike hard to defend ourselves.
The need to remain moral, even when circumstances are immoral, teaches us to minimize human suffering as much as possible.
Our moral test is not taking place in a sterile laboratory or upon the philosopher’s page. In the past weeks, the moral test put before us has taken place during intense fighting. Thousands of rockets were fired at our citizens and armed terrorists dug tunnels next to kindergartens with the aim of killing or kidnapping our children. Anyone who criticizes us must ask themselves one question: “What would you do if someone came to your child’s school with a gun in their hand and started shooting?”
Hamas, as opposed to us, wants to kill Jews. Young or old, men or women, soldiers or civilians. They see no difference, because for them we are not people. We are Jews and that is reason enough to murder us.
Our moral test, even under these circumstances, is to continue to distinguish between enemies and innocents. Every time a child in Gaza dies it breaks my heart. They are not Hamas, they are not the enemy, they are just children.
Therefore Israel is the first country in military history that informs its enemy in advance where and when it will attack, so as to avoid civilian causalities. Israel is the only country that transfers food and medication to its enemy while the fighting continues. Israel is the only country where pilots abandon their mission because they see civilians on the ground. And despite it all, children die, and children are not supposed to die.
Here in Europe, and elsewhere in the world, people sit in their comfortable homes, watching the evening news, and tell us that we are failing the test. Why? Because in Gaza people suffer more. They don’t understand — or don’t want to understand — that the suffering of Gaza is the main tool of evil. When we explain to them, time after time, that Hamas uses the children of Gaza as human shields, that Hamas intentionally places them in the firing line, to ensure they die, that Hamas sacrifices the lives of the young to win its propaganda war, people refuse to believe it. Why? Because they cannot believe that human beings — human beings who look like them and sound like them — are capable of behaving that way. Because good people always refuse to recognize the totality of evil until it’s too late.
Time after time we ask ourselves why people in the world prefer to blame us when the facts so clearly indicate otherwise. Across the world, fanatic Muslims are massacring other Muslims. In Syria, in Iraq, in Libya, in Nigeria more children are killed in a week than die in Gaza in a decade. Every week, women are raped, homosexuals are hung and Christians are beheaded. The world watches, offers its polite condemnation, and returns obsessively to condemning Israel for fighting for our lives.
Some of the criticism stems from anti-Semitism. It has raised its ugly head once more. To those people we say: we will fight you everywhere. The days when Jews ran away from you are over. We will not be silent in the face of anti-Semitism and we expect every government, in every country, to stand shoulder to shoulder with us and fight this evil with us.
Other critics, perhaps more enlightened in their own eyes, prefer to blame only us for what happens in Gaza because they know we are the only ones who listen. They prefer to focus their anger upon us not in spite of but because we are committed to the same human values which Hamas rejects – compassion for the weak, rationality, protection of gay people, of women’s rights, of the freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
Let us not fool ourselves. Evil is here. It is around us. It seeks to hurt us. Fundamentalist Islam is an ultimate evil, and like the evil which came before it, has learned how to use all our tools against us: Our TV cameras, our international organizations, our commissions of inquiry and our legal system. Just as terror uses rockets and suicide bombers, it uses our inability to accept that someone would sacrifice the children of their people just to get a supportive headline or an eye-catching photograph.
Standing here, in this place, I want to say clearly that the leaders of Hamas, an anti-western, anti-Semitic terrorist organization, cannot be safe while they continue to target innocent civilians. Just as every European leader would do, just as the United States did with Osama Bin Laden, so we will pursue every leader of Hamas.
This is the evil which we all face and Israel stands at the front. Europe must know, if we will fail to stop them, they will come for you. We must do everything to avoid suffering and the death of innocents but we stand in the right place from which to say to the entire world: We will not board the train again. We will protect ourselves from total evil.
The above text was delivered as part of a speech on Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at Platform 17, Holocaust Memorial Site, Berlin