Recently I lectured to educators from Macedonia who are participating in teacher training seminar at Yad Vashem. It was a lecture that I first gave in Ghana and then Ethiopia at the UN headquarters in Addis Ababa for International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2015. Since then, I have given it quite a few times at Yad Vashem. It is entitled ‘The Holocaust: The Unprecedented and the Ordinary,’ and it was based on a previous lecture I had given at many seminars for teachers from abroad at Yad Vashem called, ‘The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide.’
The gist of the lecture is the following: Like all historical events, the Holocaust has aspects that could be called unique, unprecedented or new. In addition, it has attributes that have deep roots in history and could be seen as old, or even ordinary.
Perhaps foremost, the Nazi conception of ‘the Jew’ as their arch-enemy and thus that that the ‘Jewish Problem’ had to be solved definitively for the good of Germany and essentially mankind, and that the Nazi onslaught was directed against both the physical and metaphysical Jew, may be seen as new in history. In other words, the idea of genocide as redemptive is arguably unprecedented.
Another major aspect of the Holocaust that is usually seen as new is the anonymous industrialized murder represented by the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It may well be that this has roots in German genocidal acts against the Herrero at the dawn of the twentieth century, but what evolved into an extensive machinery of industrialized murder seems to be quite new.
Why is it important to try to discern what is new or at least new to the consciousness of people during the Shoah? Understanding how events unfolded and how they were perceived goes to the heart of any discussion about response during the Holocaust – of Jews and others. Realizing that most people only had partial information and especially during the period of the murder that they had no clear precedents to help them interpret that information, helps us understand many of the decisions and choices they made.
If Auschwitz represents what is new in the Holocaust, there are other facets that are as old as human history itself. The first murder in human consciousness is that of brother killing brother, Cain killing Abel. Throughout history brother has murdered brother, and neighbors have murdered their neighbors. Throughout the Nazi period, neighbors frequently rose up against their Jewish neighbors; although ethnic, religious and political tensions also erupted violently between others in the crucible of the war and its immediate aftermath.
Today, the most well-known incident of Jews being murdered by their neighbors occurred in Jedwabne in Poland in the summer of 1941, when Poles burned alive the Jews of their town in a barn. Jedwabne was not an isolated incident. Neighbors murdered their Jewish neighbors in many places for many reasons: racial hatred, religious hatred, ultra-nationalism, vengeance for supposed Jewish crimes under the Communist occupation, and not the least, greed. Some of these motivations are quite ordinary, others are rooted in the specifics of time and place.
The intimate face of murder appeared in other genocides as well. It is a central theme in Rwanda, where the Tutsi and Hutu lived among each other. Testimonies of some of survivors in Rwanda are eerily reminiscent of those of some Jewish Holocaust survivors. Clearly the human suffering in all genocides has a great deal in common, and scholars are trying very hard to uncover the common elements of genocide, hopeful that this may help prevent such tragedies in the future. But no less important than finding commonalities is discerning the differences between each case. It is only through the close inspection of similarities and differences that we can hope to learn and draw wisdom.
Clearly when it comes to trying to understand the Holocaust in wider contexts and teach about in those contexts, serious engagement with other genocides is crucial. Yad Vashem’s mandate is to deal with the Holocaust. Having collected some 170 million documents, over 160,000 publications, information on four and a half million of the murdered victims, hundreds of thousands of photographs, and having engaged in research for over 60 years, this is Yad Vashem’s area of expertise. A deep and broad understanding of the Holocaust is what Yad Vashem brings to the table for serious examination of the phenomena of genocide, and any such discussion must include that perspective.
Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front, Yad Vashem 2013, and co-editor with Dr. Iael Nidam Orvieto of After So Much Pain and Anguish: First Letters after Liberation, soon to be published by Yad Vashem.