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They had a choice and they chose evil: on the murder of Norway’s Jews

The key issue of anti-Semitism and every form of racism is the danger to democracy, civilization and the future of humanity.

This week, I traveled to Oslo to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Norway’s Jews to the extermination camp at Auschwitz on November 26, 1942.

From every state in Europe they took the Jews by cattle car, but from Norway they had to load the Jews on ships.

On Monday, at a quarter to eight in the morning, we stood there, on the pier, in the dark, in the bone chilling cold, on that same spot where the ship upon which were loaded the first 532 Jews had docked. Only nine of them survived.

All of official Norway was there. The king, members of the government, the press, the Church and of course members of the Jewish community, took part in events where we discussed the implications of the Holocaust on the European and Norwegian societies of today.

Rabbi Michael Melchior greets Norway’s King Harald V (wearing white yarmulke) at Oslo’s synagogue

In my keynote speech at the synagogue, in the presence of King Harald V, I emphasized the following points that are, in my opinion, significant from both a Jewish and universal perspective, toward understanding the Holocaust and building the future.

  • What sets the Holocaust apart from any other genocide that we know of, is its absolute totality. In Norway this found expression in a most horrific way: strict registration, vast financial resources put to the task and untiring efforts to find and catch every Jew, even the Jew furthest away, who lived alone, thousands of kilometers from Oslo, the capital, with absolutely no ties to any Jewish institution. All this in order to make sure that the obliteration would be complete.
  • The elimination of the Jews was based on an ideology disconnected from any interest – economic, military or political. They did not stop at confiscating the Jews’ property and leaving them in camps in Norway (as they did with the children of mixed marriages). Stopping short of extermination would not have fit the overall ideology of eliminating the Jewish “devil” or “pure evil” from the world. Judaism was seen as the antithesis of social Darwinism, the accepted ideology of Nazism.
  • Just as there were Norwegian bureaucrats, Norwegian police officers, and even the Norwegian government – at its head the notorious Quisling – who collaborated and participated actively in bringing Jews to the ships of death, likewise, there were Norwegian police, and many Norwegian heroes and notables who risked their lives to save close to two-thirds of the Jewish community.
  • My uncle, Werner David Melchior, bore witness to the rescue of the Jews from Denmark during the Eichmann trial. One of the prosecutors, Gabriel Bach, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court, told me that my uncle’s testimony was extremely significant (though apparently not related to the prosecution), because all those who followed the Eichmann trial might have come to understand that evil is human nature. Therefore, in this trial, Bach had to prove that human beings actually had a choice.
  • Thus we must educate our children, and not only in such extreme scenarios, that we always have a choice. There were police who arrested Jews and sent them to their deaths and there were police who risked their lives to help save them. In this way our children can find positive role models with whom to identify.
  • It is a mistake to believe that anti-Semitism is first and foremost a Jewish problem. Of course there is the aspect of risk to Jews who need protection for Jewish institutions and communities. But the essential issue of anti-Semitism and every form of racism and xenophobia is the danger to the foundations of democracy, civilization and the entire future of humanity.
  • Auschwitz did not begin at Auschwitz. Anyone who is willing to accept the principle that not every human being is equal, anyone who is willing to trample the dignity of the other, regardless of who that other is, he undermines the sole foundation upon which a decent society is built. These human choices, in their most extreme and radical incarnation, brought humanity beyond the brink of the abyss 70 years ago, an abyss we must remember and study, but which we will forever be incapable of truly comprehending.
About the Author
Rabbi Michael Melchior is a leading advocate for social justice in Israel, education for all, Jewish-Arab reconciliation and co-existence, protection of the environment, and Israel-Diaspora relations. Through his work, Rabbi Melchior seeks to strengthen Israeli civil society so it may catalyze significant social change in the State of Israel. He was a member of Knesset for the Meimad Party. Rabbi Melchior continues to hold the title of Chief Rabbi of Norway.