Finding the words with which to speak about the Holocaust is not an easy task. Partly, it is because so much of what there is to say has already been said – in the painful poems and aching songs, in tear-filled tales and in the sternest of warnings from those whose lives were torn apart as the world around them fell apart.
But mostly, it is because words simply fail me.
Because every time I hear stories of suffering and see pictures I wish I could wipe from my memory, I can only absorb it all numb, and let the silence speak for itself, and try in vain to let it drown out the sound of crying within. But silence cannot speak, and something must be said.
Part of the reason why I find it difficult to talk about the Holocaust is that it still feels unreal: for though the legacy of the Holocaust is an inseparable part of the Jewish experience, it has not been a central part of my personal Jewish experience.
The vocabulary of anguish that ties into my family history is markedly different from that of the European Jewish narrative. I am a Mizrahi Jew: my ancestors hailed from the Middle East, and the quarter of the family that descended from Europe was fortunate enough to have fled from the Tsar’s horses long before the Führer’s tanks rolled across the plains of Russia.
So I did not grow up hearing of what we lost in Berlin, but in Baghdad; I was not brought up with tales of Kristallnacht, but the Farhud; not Kindertransport, but Operation Ezra and Nehemiah; not the displaced persons camps, but the ma’abarot – although thankfully, we have no equivalent of the extermination camps.
But I am a Jew, and there is no avoiding that the Holocaust is now a part of my story too.
However, if by virtue of a common identity I can internalise the history of Ashkenazi Jews as a part of my heritage as a Jew, then by virtue of another common identity – our humanity – the history of gentiles can just as easily become a part of our history as human beings.
The Nazis killed their victims not for being Jewish, per se, but for being others. For being gay, Slavic, Polish, gypsy, disabled – or any combination of those. They were slaughtered for the crime of being. Of living, of breathing, of smiling and of thriving. For daring to exist without German blood flowing through their veins.
It sounds beyond belief, but the Nazis even had elaborate systems for identifying those doubly guilty: a pink triangle on yellow was the mark of a gay Jew; purple over yellow, a Jehovah’s Witness of Jewish descent. As far as the Nazis were concerned, these souls were all Lebensunwertes Leben – ‘life unworthy of life’.
So to those who deny that six million perished in the Holocaust, let us say something bold: “You’re right. There may have been as many as twenty million.” Maybe not all in camps, but all liquidated to make room for Germans; burnt to cleanse the land.
The Nazis made us victims. They caged us in make-believe boxes of ‘blood purity’, before they caged us in the camps. They turned us into scapegoats, and sacrificed us to their hungry cult of death. They told us who we were and what we were and that we were to be no longer.
Well, here we are.
The Nazis are gone, but we have not yet escaped their shadow; the trauma throbs apace. The Nazis did not begin by denying Jews their lives, but their humanity. For the Nazis, we were Jews first and humans not at all. There are two ways, over seventy years on from the Wannsee Conference, that we can react to the legacy of such an affront.
The first is reclaim our humanity but leave standing the racist’s insistence that we are first and foremost members of the Jewish race: we look inward, we claim that the goyim are destined to hate us, and we argue that the Chosen People were chosen for greater rights than others. That is certainly the approach of some Jewish extremists and ultra-nationalists; and we must not deny the danger of their poisonous presence. But that is not only backwards, bigoted and barbaric – it is also to let the Nazis win and accept the identity they foisted on us.
The alternative is to refuse to be caged in – to insist that we are not first and foremost Jews, but humans.
Humans, humans – über alles.
To be human above all means to understand the world through the eyes of every David against his Goliath. To identify with anyone, anywhere, on the basis of our common humanity, which is more fundamental to our identity than scripture, language and common rituals. To recognise that we see the world through different eyes, but those eyes still cry and that those tears are no less salty. That we love the world with different hearts, but those hearts may still be broken.
This is the moment in which every individual must relieve himself of all of his nationalist or religious hats, relieve himself of the otherness and wear just one robe: the robe of humanity. He must look at himself, look around him, and be human. Only human.
It takes a tremendous amount of courage to look one’s political foes in the eye and recognise their suffering; to look at those whom one regards as oppressors and recognise them as victims too. It is a lesson that each of us would do well to learn.
In 1951, Israel insisted on appearing before the International Court of Justice in order to plead that no state had a right, as several had asserted, to make reservations to the Genocide Convention and thereby evade international scrutiny for the crime of genocide. As a nation of refugees and survivors, Israel recognised that its rightful role on the international stage was to be a mouthpiece for future oppressed generations, and to use its sovereign powers not just to advance its own interests, but to speak for those who had no voice. For a Jewish state is nevertheless composed of humans, humans above all.
There is yet a more poignant way for Jews to reclaim their humanity: to think of this ‘otherness’ of our identity not as something that sets us apart from the world, but that makes us necessary parts of it. To see our values and traditions as contributions to the common heritage of humanity, which we, in turn, should feel entitled to treat as our own. We are the proud bearers of a rich tradition, but the story of the Jews is also the story of the world. We should feel confident to borrow what we recognise to be right, and abandon what we reason to be wrong. To appreciate the world in all its beauty and love to live and live to love.
Nothing will ever eliminate our grief, nor should it: we must never forget, and we must help others learn. But remembrance is not the same as memory – Holocaust Memorial Day does not exist to remind us of what we are in danger of forgetting. Instead, remembrance means taking that memory, raw and exposed, and nursing it to health; harnessing pain to find relief; and closing a chapter of darkness, in a way that musters the courage to begin to turn the pages of a chapter of light.
The above is adapted from a speech delivered to the Oxford University Jewish Society to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.