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Not just any holocaust

A trip to Poland laid bare the Shoah's unique horror and the risk that Europe is blurring the distinctions

Here’s a truth: Jews die.

Now, I know that everyone dies. Muslims and Christians. Zoroastrians and Buddhists to name just a few. They, like Jews leave this world in a myriad of ways – some natural and some unnatural. But there is no people who have ever died quite like the Jews have. It is also true to say that people of all different backgrounds have been victimized but no people have ever been victimized like the Jews have.

The terms “genocide”, “extermination” and “holocaust” are used to describe a range of human horrors that we heap on one another; each and every horror is deserving of our disgust and outrage. Yet, I am reminded of poignant words spoken by Nobel Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, “If everything is a holocaust then there was no Holocaust.”

In other words, if the Holocaust is to have any enduring meaning it must stand as the signature, and unique human horror that it was. If we don’t see the Shoah in this way, then we are seeing it in the wrong way.

This idea came home to me in ways that surprised even me after leading the Toronto contingent on this years March of the Living. I say “even” because I am fortunate to have had an excellent Jewish education. I am a passionate reader, and my bookshelves (and now tablet) are filled with books on the Holocaust. Before heading out on the March I was certain that I knew more than enough of the Holocaust. I should have known there is a difference between education and understanding; between information and wisdom. But I had yet to see the camps, so how could I have known otherwise? Less than 24 hours after returning from the March of the Living I am humbled, and thankfully so.

I knew there was a plan to annihilate European Jewry for no other purpose than a sick hatred. Jewish life in Europe before the Second World War was difficult, and dangerous enough but its horrific crescendo lifted the Jewish people to a unparalleled category of human suffering.

I now understand the complex machine that had been created – the brick, mortar, train tracks and stations, pipes, and stoves – to place every Jewish man, woman, and child into a pile of ashes simply due to their Jewish faith: that is the Holocaust. I understand this more deeply than before.

Most human horrors have some tangible complaint to them – land that was wanted, water that was stolen, a long harbored humiliation, money or resources. But the attempted Holocaust of the Jews had nothing tangible: it intensified despite the collapsing German war effort. As we probe deeper into this horror we see that the hatred of the Jew was so intense, so heated that in the face of everything sensible the killing continued through a determined workforce of Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians, citizens of the Benelux and other Europeans.

Herein lies the warning: at the bottom of Auschwitz is a cellar filled with different prison cells; cells without light, and cells that required a person to crouch all the time. In one of those cells lay a wreath of flowers in honor of a Polish priest named Maximilian Kolbe who was sent to the camp for hiding 2000 Jews.

When one of the Roman Catholic Poles was sentenced to death Kolbe offered himself up to spare the man’s family the loss of a husband and father. Kolbe eventually succumbed to starvation, and he is now a patron saint. Unquestionably his life and actions are an exemplar of care and love for human life, but to treat Kolbe as a saint in the midst of a camp where Jews were singled out for death is a warning to us.

The movement to define the Holocaust as a crime against Europe and Europeans is intense and determined, as is framing the Holocaust as a crime against European citizens who happened to be Jews. Were Gypsies, homosexuals, communists and other political undesirables murdered at the hands of the Nazis and their accomplices? Tragically yes. But their deaths do not add up to a holocaust. The architecture of murder that was built specifically and deliberately to annihilate the Jewish population of Europe was the Holocaust.

The March of the Living heads from Poland to arrive in Israel on Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s annual memorial day for their fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. It is a heart aching day filled with two distinct siren blasts that freeze all action and movement in the country for two minutes at a time. The names of the 23,169 fallen soldiers are recited on the national television station. To complete the list within a 24 hour period requires each name to be said within 2.5 seconds.

As I stood in silence during a siren blast my mind drifted to the forest of the town of Tykochin. On August 25 1941 the 2400 Jewish inhabitants of the town were gathered in the town’s square, loaded onto lorries to the forest nearby, and were shot to death and placed into three mass graves. In one day men, women and children were murdered putting an end to over 400 years of Jewish life there. All that remains is a recovered synagogue.

I know that if we had then what we have now – a strong, vital, capable Jewish state – it would have never happened. The reasons for having a Jewish State are many but on the March of the Living the greatest of them stood before me.

About the Author
Aaron Flanzraich is the Senior Rabbi at Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto, Canada and the author of “The Small, Still Voice” an argument against Jewish fundamentalism.
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