In a way, there’s a curious kind of appropriateness that this post should come right after the one on the Zamirchor visit, since our partnership with the choir from Bayreuth actually came about as a result of the vision of the German choir’s founders, a vision of reconciliation between the Jewish and German peoples.
The day before yesterday, I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as part of an organised visit from my place of work. I have, of course, been there before, but the place never fails to move me. This was, however, the first time I had visited the Children’s Memorial. You walk down a slope into a darkened hall, with no windows, pitch black except for hundreds of twinkling lights all around you. I believe they are supposed to represent the souls of the more than one and a half million Jewish children murdered in the Nazi Holocaust. As you walk through the cavern, a voice recites the names, ages and places of origins of some of the victims. I know that some of our guests from Zamirchor also visited there last week and I was suddenly reminded that on one of our previous projects with them, in New York two years ago, after a meeting with a Holocaust survivor, one of the young Germans asked her why she thought that this had happened in Germany, specifically. At the time, I interpreted his question as meaning, did she think there was something intrinsically evil about the German people. She did not think so and neither do I – nor, apparently, did Shira, our guide from Yad Vashem. And yet it did happen there and we have to ask ourselves why. How did a civilised and cultured society somehow turn into Amalek? In New York, my gut reaction was that this was a question Germans must ask themselves. It would be easy to say, yes, Germans are (or were) inherently evil. Easy and comforting – because then, there is no need to confront the possibility that such a thing could happen elsewhere. But supposing the seeds of such satanic evil lie dormant in all of us? That’s a very frightening thought.
I, personally, do not believe that Germans are inherently the most evil of nations. It is, after all, a fact that in many countries that fell under the Nazi yoke, the general population collaborated with enthusiasm in the Nazi plan for the extermination of the Jews. One has only to think of the Nazi-style parties that existed in countries such as Hungary, Romania and Croatia. I doubt that the Holocaust could have taken place without the widespread, centuries-old antisemitism that was (and still is) endemic in European society. For this, the Church cannot escape responsibility. For almost two millenia, Christian children were taught that the Jews were Christ-killers, that Jews kill Christian children and use their blood in the preparation of matza (unleavened bread), that the Talmud permits Jews – encourages them even – to swindle Gentiles, and so on and so on. By the time Hitler came along, antisemitic perceptions such as these were so engrained in the mindset of the general population (not only in Germany), that the Nazis found fertile ground for their doctrine of hate.
And yet many of the circumstances in which Nazism arose and flourished, and which we are told contributed to the rise of Hitler to power, existed in other countries also. The economic crisis triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 affected the whole of Europe, including the United Kingdom – not to mention the United States. Unemployment was rampant in the UK and in the USA also. Why, then, did Oswald Mosley and his blackshirts fail in the United Kingdom, while Hitler flourished in Germany? Why, despite the existence of blatantly racist movements in the United States (you have only to think of the Ku Klux Klan) did Nazism never gain a stronghold there? I have no answers.
In modern, liberal, democratic thought, we are taught that it is intolerance that is the enemy, that antisemitism is just one aspect of the universal dislike and distrust of whoever or whatever is different. We are told that the Holocaust is not unique, that other peoples have also been the victims of genocide. The Turkish massacre of between one million and one and a half million Armenians during World War I immediately comes to mind – as do the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and the ongoing, systematic massacre of African civilians by Arab militias in Darfur. However, it is also true that the definition of genocide has been altered and broadened in the last quarter of the twentieth century and the first decade of the present century. It is my contention, however, that attempts to universalise the Holocaust in fact are aimed at minimizing its enormity. The indisputable fact is, that it is only the Jews who have been subject to repeated, premeditated attempts to utterly exterminate them. For the Nazis were not the first. The very first recorded attempt at genocide in history was directed at the Israelites, when the Pharaoh of Egypt ordered the drowning of all male Israelite babies in the Nile. In his mind, the females would become the wives and concubines of Egyptians, their children would be Egyptians and thus, the Israelites would cease to exist as a people.
Hundreds of years later, in faraway Persia, the King’s Grand Vizier, Haman, also plotted the extermination of the entire Jewish race.
Pharaoh failed. Haman also failed. Hitler almost succeeded.
Could it happen again? I look at the sharp rise in antisemitic incidents in Europe, at the widespread antisemitic prejudice only thinly disguised as anti-Zionism – and I can only wonder.