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The Source of Holocaust Envy

81 years ago, on the eve of Pesach, April 19, 1943, the uprising in Warsaw Ghetto began. We should remember it for many reasons, one of them being the disgusting comparisons made with Arab communities suffering presently because of Israeli actions. To many of us, the comparisons seem completely inadequate, but there are diverging opinions why they are unacceptable. I believe that in addition to all the anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish reasons, the comparisons reflect a much larger phenomenon, which we could call “Holocaust envy.” Below, I present a reflection about it, adapted from my book Small Numbers, Big Presence: Jews in Poland After World War II, to be published in Summer 2024 by Peter Lang publishing house.

There exists a phenomenon that we should call “Holocaust envy.” Namely, the term describing the murder of Jews is being used to describe other massacres, mass extinctions, and even activities like slaughtering animals for meat or abortions that eliminate large numbers of fetuses. The latter has been dubbed by some die-hard Catholics the “Holocaust of the Unborn.” Why do people use such a term? Well, it indicates the special significance of the phenomenon in question.
In the modern world – at least in Western culture – it is (still) widely accepted that the murder of Jews during the war was an incredible horror, that the Holocaust should be commemorated, and that important lessons should be formulated on its basis. And it is this assessment, it seems to me, that becomes the reason for envy. The possibility of using the name “Holocaust” for another misfortune is supposed to suggest its unquestionable importance. The very use of this word, people who push it seem to think, is supposed to automatically bring the effect of placing a given massacre on the top shelf and to bring broad, international recognition. A good example of conscious propaganda in this spirit is seen in the proposal to refer to Polish losses during the Second World War, which were very heavy indeed, as the “Polocaust.” In 2018, it was proposed to create a Museum of the Polocaust. The annihilation of Polish Jews would be its fragment. So far, nothing has come of it, but who knows what else will hatch in the next stages of the official historical policy of one Polish government or another.

All such attempts provoke opposition. However, it is not obvious what this objection, or rather indignation, is based on. It seems to be more than a result of the general observation that if we call all mass deaths “Holocaust,” the term loses its meaning; nothing will truly be a Holocaust anymore. I guess the opposition is mostly based on jealousy, Holocaust envy. In addition, calling some deaths “Holocaust” somehow ennobles them. The naming creates a different aura: it is not just any death, it is a Holocaust, something that everyone must respect.

Now, this ennoblement may seem surprising and incomprehensible. After all, Jews murdered in gas chambers or in pits dug in the forest did not die an ennobling death. On the contrary. They died abandoned, humiliated, disdained. In those years and later, for many people, including Jews, their deaths were especially degrading. It was the fighters who died in combat who were – and still are – considered to be those who met a “dignified” death. So where is this strange ennoblement coming from?

This envy and attempts to appropriate the Holocaust, as well as the opposition and indignation that such actions evoke, should be considered, I propose, together with the consideration of the well-known and constantly controversial problem of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. I believe that the incomparability of the Holocaust cannot be sufficiently justified by its objective properties alone. And at the same time, the opinion about the uniqueness of the Holocaust seems to me – as well as to a significant number of other people, not only Jews – not only correct, but basically independent of the results of comparisons and analyses of examples from older and more recent history. It is actually a premise. What is it based on?

A more distinguishing feature of the Holocaust than its scale, organization, and methodology is that in order to annihilate the Jews, the German Nazis were willing to sacrifice valuable resources, such as railroad cars, that were needed for the war effort. Consequently, they acted in a militarily irrational manner. The only reason for this behavior could be that they saw getting rid of the Jews as their highest priority. Why? Their attitude can be treated as an obsession, a disease of antisemitism, inexplicable stupidity, madness. However, by answering in this way, we are basically admitting helplessness, inability to understand. Is there another explanation that reveals more sense and even rationality in their actions?

To try to answer, let us recall that the great murder actions often began on Jewish holidays. This was the case, for example, when the Germans decided to murder the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. They started the operation on the eve of Tishah BeAv 5702, i.e. on July 22, 1942. Later, the last move aimed at the final annihilation of the inhabitants of the ghetto began on the eve of Pesach 5703, i.e. on April 19, 1943. That is why the uprising in the ghetto broke out at that time. What is more, such acts as public desecration of Torah scrolls were also a favorite way to show who was superior. Apparently, the task was not only to kill Jews, but also to humiliate and destroy the Jewish religion. In a world without Jews – and this was Hitler’s dream – Judaism would have disappeared anyway, but by choosing such dates and introducing such behaviors, it was possible to immediately show the superiority of the German order over everything Jewish. And above all, it was possible to demonstrate to Jews, as well as everyone else, that the Jewish tradition, its most sacred moments, its sacred objects would be of no help. Ultimately, it was about the humiliation of the Jewish God. The fight against Him was supposed to lead to His “death.” How do you hit the Invisible? You must hit something visible, visible to all. The best solution is to humiliate and murder His chosen people.

If this is the correct reading of the intentions, we can see the Nazis as perversely “religious,” that is, taking biblical tradition seriously. It is true that they wanted to destroy it and replace it with their own Germanic mythology, but they did not ignore it as unimportant. Playing the role of God, replacing Him with Hitler and his party who represented the German nation and its gods, and giving in practice the role of the representatives of the highest authority to the local Nazis responsible for mass murder – this is the deepest sense of the project to murder all Jews. Making seemingly irrational moves that were detrimental to the war effort turns out to be the result of a different rationale, one derived from the logic of religious war in the strictest sense, namely a war waged against the God who favors the Jews, in the name of some other gods.

Thus, if we believe the Holocaust to be unique, the reason is not so much the manner of death, the extent of the crime, the effect of the disappearance of hundreds of communities from the face of the earth, because all these circumstances can be encountered in other situations. The reason is that this genocide involved the Jews.

Since the Jews have a special connection to the Bible, and the Bible plays a unique role in the present human civilization, the Jewish tragedy becomes something unique. If the image of God choosing Jews is indicative of how to treat the Jewish Holocaust, then any other use of the term “Holocaust” is an intrusion into the relationship with God. The election of the Jews is the main biblical theme. It is not the result of Israel’s special qualities, merits, or greatness. The people of Israel are not special according to any sociological criterion. Particularity occurs as a result of the election. It is not only the act of election, the making of a covenant, but also their faithfulness to the covenant – despite all examples of apostasy and sin – that is the source of this particularity.

Since the Holocaust was a crime committed against Jews as Jews, it can be added, even unwittingly, to the history of humanity’s relationship with the biblical God. The Shoah becomes like an additional chapter that can be added to the Bible. And this is indeed an ennoblement. It is hard to imagine a more respectable place in history.

To conclude, there must be a separate term for an attempt to remove the chosen people from the face of the Earth, a word that cannot be applied to other tragedies, even the greatest and most deserving of memory and solidarity with the victims. The other disasters are not related in a comparable way to the category of election and its entire biblical background. All of us who take biblical tradition seriously, or even just admit that it is an essential element of the foundations of our civilization and not just an outdated fairy tale for the uneducated, will therefore consider the Nazi attempt – after all, a partially successful one – to murder all Jews as something special. This is our assumption, a consequence of accepting the unique status of Jews. And it is hardly surprising that this uniqueness arouses envy. If we recognize that the peculiarity of the Holocaust results from the peculiar status of the Jews, and not from the objectively measurable features of this tragedy, then we can understand the attempts to “steal” the Holocaust as well as the indignation they cause, our disagreement with any attempt to apply the term “Holocaust” to other situations. The Shoah is unique because Jews are unique.

About the Author
Born in Warsaw, mathematician turned philosopher, full professor at the University of Warsaw, dissident and member of 'Solidarity' under Communism, active in reviving Jewish life in Poland, co-chair of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, co-author of the post-World War II section at POLIN.
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