“Holocaust? Could you please remind me…” said Madeline with an embarrassed smile. “It’s been such a long time since I took history in school, I don’t remember what ‘the Holocaust’ was.”
Stockholm, Sweden. The calendar declared that spring had officially arrived in Scandinavia, but the City of Islands greeted me with snow and rain, not spring sunshine. My friend Alter Saks was running late for our meeting, so while I waited for him at his office I took the opportunity to chat with Madeline and Stanislav, members of his staff. When they heard I came from Israel, they wanted to hear first-hand about my famed country. Instead of delivering a lecture, I asked, “When you hear the word ‘Israel’—what’s the first thing that springs to mind?”
Madeline (about 40 years old, with a college BA), started out diplomatically: “Israel… ahhh, reminds me of history, something old, heritage.”
Stanislav (of Russian descent, about 30 years old, with several academic degrees) was more direct: “Strong army, separation wall, lots of enemies.”
And so we quickly came to the central question: Why do the Jews and Arabs fight each other all the time? Madeline asked, “How come Israel can’t make room for everyone?” She added, “Do the Arabs really want to kill you, or do they just want the land for themselves?” I tried to understand the difference between her two alternatives, and answered with a question: “Let us suppose they ‘just’ want the land for themselves—would the 6 million Jews who would have to leave the country be invited to stay in Sweden?”
Madeline asked, “So why do the Arabs want to kick you out of there?” and I tried to explain. As background, I mentioned Holocaust Remembrance Day, which had taken place just the previous day. Madeline did not understand the word “Holocaust”!! I was staggered to learn that a mere 70 years after the event, an educated woman, living in the capital city of an enlightened Scandinavian country, did not know what the Holocaust was.
An Arab proverb says, “He came to seduce her, but he blinded her.” Stanislav tried to come to my rescue and explain what the Holocaust was, but his “explanation” left me even more horrified. He started out by “clarifying” that there are many questions about the Holocaust. How many Jews were really killed? Did it even happen at all? Why should the Holocaust in Europe mean that the State of Israel had to be established in the heart of the Arab world?
When I got back to my hotel, as a kind of sequel to my disturbing encounter with such ignorance about the Holocaust, I found an email from my friend Miki Nevo. To mark Holocaust Day he had sent me something he had written about a decade earlier, during a visit to Poland as the head of a delegation from the school where he was the Principal. In this passage, my tough Sabra friend eulogized his family members:
“I came here to beg your forgiveness: forgiveness for not wanting to know for many years; for wanting to run away and not face it; for not knowing how to come to terms with it, nor how to understand it. Then I screwed up my courage and dared to visit. For not having the strength to encompass it; for not being able to alleviate it; for choosing to ignore the look in my parents’ eyes; for hardening my heart to your great suffering: Please forgive me; please forgive me.”
Holocaust Remembrance Day demonstrates the national consensus about the obligation to fulfill the commandment of “you shall tell it to your children” regarding the horrors of the Holocaust. There is no disputing the supreme importance of passing on the torch of history from generation to generation, and of the urgency of the task. For time is passing, and soon there will no longer remain any survivors to tell of the horrors they experienced first-hand.
Together with the obligation to remember and to tell others, there is also no escaping the obligation to contend with the challenging question: What next?
After all, only three generations have passed, and yet the world is already repressing (at best) or denying (at worst) that the Holocaust happened. By the time three more generations have passed, the Holocaust will become simply another chapter in the horrifying history of the world, proving once more that there is no limit to the bestiality and cruelty of the human species—nor to the ease with which people forget.
In Israel, we need to agree on a new narrative and define another justification for Israel’s existence, over and above the trauma of the Holocaust and our fear of its recurrence. We are also obliged to contend with the growing criticism from the world around us, when we are no longer shielded by the armor of the Holocaust that protected us for a few decades but is now rapidly rusting away.
Our new narrative should relate more to what we want to be and less to what we are afraid will happen again. In other words, we would do better to concern ourselves less with “the entire world is against us”, even if that is true to some degree. Instead, we should focus more on the question of what kind of country we aspire to be: in our behavior towards the weak and the stranger, to the environment and nature, and to the enormous challenge of being “the chosen people” when sometimes, in our heart of hearts, some of us just wish to be like everyone else.