Michael Berenbaum

Then and Now

By Michael Berenbaum and Gilbert Kahn

When they began to operate in the spring 1942, they had a capacity of 800. By the time they were operating at full efficiency in 1943, 2000 Jews could be murdered in each of two gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau at a time.

On October 7, 2023, there were 260 Jews attending a music festival who were slaughtered by Hamas among a total of approximately 1400 mostly civilians who were murdered. In addition, over 200 individuals are believed to have been taken hostage, of whom many probably have already died or been killed.

Except for the fact that the murders in Auschwitz were committed in German occupied or annexed Poland and the ones which occurred just over two weeks ago were committed in Israel and Gaza, there seems to be no difference. All these Jews were killed because they were Jews. Approximately 80 years have transpired and there continue to be people who hate Jews so much they are prepared to rape, torture, slaughter, decapitate, and murder them because they are Jews. If the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Southern Israel had their way, they would kill all of the approximately 7 million Jews living in Israel today.

We spent last week visiting Nazi death camps in Poland – Sobibor, Belzec, Auschwitz and Treblinka. Visiting the Nazi concentration camps in Poland for the first time or the fiftieth time one is struck by the grotesque efficiency of the numerous forms of the Nazi’s murdering operations. When one reviews the guidebooks with the instructions carried by the Hamas terrorists, one recognizes the same demonic vitriol, though a lesser degree os efficiency.

Whether one is considering the photographs and equipment of the examination room operators of the Nazi “scientific” medical operations–the systematized chemical and biological operations– for the first or the 500th time one is struck by the grotesque use of human intelligence to conduct murder by human beings against other human beings. Whether one views the photos of SS officers enjoying the torture and degradation of Jews being raped, ridiculed, tortured, or murdered for the 1000 time, one is struck by the absolute absence of empathy and compassion in their demeanors.

When one saw Jewish hostages being dragged on motorcycles and in trucks and cars through the streets of Gaza, one saw the same delight on the faces in the videos of people of Gaza. In both instances there is no humanity evidenced but a rather ecstatic attitude of pleasure and delight reflected as they observe the pain and suffering being inflicted against Jews. They chanted Allah Akbar –-God is Great—somehow seeing themselves as religious men.

There is a total disconnect between their sense of their human lives and those of their victims; as if to suggest that the Jews belong to some other species. Nazis and the Hamas terrorists consider it justifiable and acceptable to hate and degrade human life in such an appalling manner as to not consider Jews to be human beings. These acts of barbarism committed against civilians; innocent men, woman, and children of all ages is totally acceptable to them.

In the end, the Nazis did not seek to move the Jews out of Germany or Poland or Russia, etc., they sought to make Europe and the world Judenrein. Hamas did not want Jews to go to America or Europe, they wanted them and Israel to disappear, into the sea.

Jews have proclaimed since the Holocaust “Never Again”. Jews have a country and have proven themselves to be a viable member among the world of nations. They pledge to fight to ensure that there never will be anyone who will be permitted to seek to annihilate Jews. Yet, the horror that occurred in Southern Israel demonstrated clearly that there remain people who are committed to trying to repeat once again such indescribable acts against Jews.

In studying the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews between 1933 and 1945, no one should have assumed that it could ever occur again, yet that is precisely what the world witnessed last week. It was not the military targets or soldiers who were singled out but babies, women, even elderly Holocaust survivors. It is beyond belief to consider that anyone in the civilized world might consider the actions of these bestial terrorists as morally justified under any code of morality. The Harvard students who so confidently speak of themselves as advocates for Justice in their self-proclaimed morality should tell the truth about themselves: Harvard Student for pogroms in Israel.

To see Jews once again, 80 years after the Holocaust, being destroyed with the same degradation by other human beings can thus become imaginable. Whatever concerns or disregard or insensitivities to human life that has been committed in the region by Israel and by its troops, they do not represent the planned attack perpetrated by Hamas. Their disregard of human life is abonidable.

Let’s be clear: there are also significant differences between the Nazis in the Holocaust and Hamas. The pogrom perpetrated by Hamas in Southern Israel is not the Holocaust. In fact, it is bizarrely similar to the behavior of the Cossacks when they swept into Jewish villages into the Russian shtetels and wiped out all the Jewish civilians in their path. It was strictly barbarism. So too like Hamas, a terrorist organization not a government (albeit supported and armed by a sovereign state) crossing a border and slaughtering everything in its path.

The Holocaust was the systematic state sponsored annihilation of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime in Germany, their allies, and enablers. It began with discrimination, persecutions, and expropriation and then moved to killing.  The Nazis first used bullets, sending mobile killers to stationary victims and shooting them, town after town, village after village, men, women and children. In late 1941, it reversed the process by making the victims mobile and sending them to stationary killing centers, factories of murder in an assembly line process of depersonalized gassing. The Holocaust evolved over a dozen years; systematic killing began in June 1941 and continued uninterrupted until the last days of the war in May 1945.

Responsibility that the horror in Southern Israel even occurred also rests with the Government of the State of Israel. It failed to fulfil its primary responsibility as a political authority, to protect its citizens. Even without the investigation which will be forthcoming, it is absolutely inexcusable and inexplicable that a formidable, powerful democracy could be caught so unprepared. Israel is not culpable for the barbaric behavior of the Hamas “freedom fighters”, but this slaughter should never have happened. This was a Jewish government that failed in its most elementary obligation to protect its citizens violating the most basic tenet of Zionism – and the most fundamental decision regarding the future of post-Holocaust Jews — that a Jewish State and Jewish power would keep the Jewish people safe.

 There is one other very significant difference, 2023 is not 1933-1945. We are not alone.

President Joe Biden spoke out in way that American Presidents have almost never spoken. He came to Israel. The U.S. is sending military supplies and asking the Congress to approve significant additional military assistance. Not only the U.S., but Presidents and Prime Ministers of other European countries have come. This was not true 80 years ago.

Most scholars and observers in the West tragically recognize that humanity has learned  precious little from the Holocaust. Visiting Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, does not give humanity a pass to justify the action or rationalize the behavior of Hamas. No one is exonerated or excused because they made a visit to a concentration camp. Slaughtering Jews remains precisely that. There is no moral code that can justify it. Slaughtering Jews in Southern Israel only constitutes a change in venue and in the size, scale and scope of the tragedy, not in the heinous crimes being committed by human beings against Jews.

Today’s enemy is different, we are different, but the venom is the same.

About the Author
Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, author and Emmy-Award Filmmaker. Former Project Director overseeing the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and former President and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Related Topics
Related Posts