(January 30, 2020 / JNS) How does a Jewish girl born after the war experience the Shoah and remember it? The answer is with strain, disgust and disbelief—yes, quite naively. In her defense, there is no one to teach or explain to her the impenetrable mysteries of human cruelty and the uniqueness of the Jewish condition. The dilemma is that that girl of yesteryear is still pondering these mysteries today; both the immensity of the abyss and its unspeakable uniqueness remain forbidden to her.
Anyone who has not shared this experience cannot be considered a credible ally when declaring “never again.” I’m sorry—I appreciate you, but I don’t believe you. As that little girl remains alone in her attempt to puzzle out this mosaic in her mind, so does the Jew remain alone as he painstakingly reconstructs his joie de vivre.
Anti-Semitism doesn’t contain its own antidote.
At our house in Via Marconi in Florence, Italy, the memory of the Shoah and of the Fascist persecution of the Jews had two faces, or rather three, and all were mysterious. The one most frequently seen, the one on my mother’s side of the family, was an anxious desire to fully return to daily Florentine life. My grandmother’s smile in the kitchen, the bourgeois rehabilitation of the Lattes-Volterra family and the stubborn, determined efforts of my ex-partisan mother-turned-journalist—as if this were a continuation of the struggle.
This aspiration to resume daily life after years on the run, of hiding, resistance and hunger, of fear and discrimination, and especially after the deportation of three of my grandmother Rosina’s younger brothers (two, Gastone and Angiolino, died in Buchenwald, and the third, Beppino, was shot while attempting to escape), rendered the horrors our family had suffered unspeakable.
Our grandmother didn’t talk about this; she shared snippets woven into a fairy tale with a happy ending, in which the brothers and sisters, along with their spouses and sons and daughters had all hidden together, like crazy people, in Uncle Gualtiero’s villa in Bellosguardo before all going their separate ways. She recounted how three of them were captured because, while they were hiding in an attic, the smoke of a careless cigarette filtered through the beams. A message entrusted to someone at the station was the last sign anyone had from these three brothers.
Grandmother Rosina recounted the escape, fear and dispersion in chapters featuring the houses of good priests and Grandfather’s tailor, who from his window in the Piazza del Carmine called out to “Cavaliere Lattes” (my grandfather) to come and hide in his apartment. Grandmother Rosina and we two sisters—then little girls—would dance the Hora, that became so popular in the kibbutzim, in front of a tapestry representing Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus, singing invented words.
Israel was always on our screen, the realistic backdrop of newfound life. This was most true for my father, who had escaped the Shoah by leaving for Israel as a young Zionist in 1936. His father, stepmother, brother, four little stepsisters and many uncles and cousins, whose names he continued to recite to the end of his life, were slaughtered. He returned to Italy in 1945 as a member of the Jewish Brigade, where he met my mother, a young Jewish partisan.
My father didn’t speak much, expressing his pain only in the books we wrote about the Shoah. On rare occasions, however, he did express himself more directly. Once, at a press conference given by Pope John Paul II (my father was a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Al Hamishmar), he addressed the pope in Polish: “How could you keep silent when that savage and ruthless gang chased down children in orphanages, disabled men and women, the elderly and sick in hospitals and nursing homes, and the youths of entire countries in order to burn them alive, drown them in rivers, poison them with gas, and bury them alive in huge mass graves?” (I don’t know if these were the exact words: I took them from one of his books.)
Since I was a child I have learned a couple of things about the Shoah. The first is that the Jewish people have suffered an evil that requires an inhuman, unparalleled effort to understand. The second is that, by virtue of its special, 3,000-year history of resistance, its sense of life and rebellion has remained intact, like one of the crystal glasses Grandmother Rosina miraculously saved from her family’s house. This sense of life miraculously found fulfilment in the dream of Israel; if before and after the Shoah there had been no Israel, if the idea of return had not existed, the Jewish people would have died of pain.
Instead it flourished, in a surprising way. Pain and uniqueness demand miraculous answers; not everyone wants to understand them. Which leads to the third lesson: Though in plain sight, it is often ignored that the uniqueness of what the Jewish people are living and have lived is inextricably bound up with its discovery of the invisible, unique, moral and personal God that has accompanied all revolutions of modern thought.
Since I was a girl, Anne Frank’s diary has left me perplexed and full of questions. Manipulation of the text, even in its theatrical reproductions, has led to a universalist and even positive projection of Anne’s story and spirit. She is represented as a girl gripped more by adolescent anxiety and ruminations about love than by the torment of imprisonment and terror of deportation. Anne senses, foresees, that the death sentence hanging over her is hanging over all Jews, and says so—but in vulgar interpretations she is depicted above all as trusting in human goodness, in the coming redemption.
Instead, we should explain to young people reading her diary Anne’s suffering, how she was hunted, discovered and deported, along with her mother and sister and millions of other innocents. How they were killed according to a grand design, how Anne and her sister Margot were transported by cattle car from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where they died amid incredible suffering, eaten by cold, lice and typhus.
This is the Shoah. Those who wish to propagate its memory must not seek to introduce some fictional theme of collective redemption through human goodness.
I also remember being struck by the fact that Primo Levi’s memoir If This Is a Man was initially rejected by the Italian publishing house Einaudi—authors Cesare Pavese and Natalia Ginsburg, who had roles at the firm, considered it too specifically Jewish. Nazism, they believed, was the universal evil, and its victims had therefore to embody, like communism, a universal hope of redemption.
In this vein, a universalist culture has been built since the war according to which Judaism is a representative of the universal good and anti-Semitism the apotheosis of every so-called (and it depends on where you look) “culture of hatred.” But those who think they are defending the Jews by advocating an intersectional anti-oppression front, refusing to understand that today when they say Zionism they say Judaism, err to the point of allying themselves once again with an anti-Semitic front. Just like those who in 1936 believed that peace was a universal good and that therefore it made sense to ally with Hitler, they are making a colossal mistake.
The redemption of the Jewish people was as lonely and mysterious, specific and extraordinary as its history of survival for 2,000 years until returning to its homeland. The Jews, as early as 1895, when a journalist named Theodor Herzl witnessed the demotion of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in France solely because he was Jewish, conceived the idea of salvation from anti-Semitism through the return to the Jewish state of Israel.
In 1975, the world’s largest intergovernmental organization, the United Nations—which was created to protect the world from a repeat of the Nazi horror—declared that “Zionism equals racism.”
After the Shoah, the survivors, having left the European desert of betrayal for their new homeland of Israel, had to immediately shoulder old rifles and fight for their lives against the onslaught of the surrounding countries. Nobody lifted a finger to help them.
Today, when we read that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is again vowing the destruction of the “cancer” Israel, no one protests. The many politicians and world leaders who gathered in Israel in recent days (including Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who had just visited Qatar) should consider the following: If they want to propose a global policy in which “never again” is something other than a mere expression of universalist conformism, they must address the problem of institutional anti-Semitism, whether promoted or even just tolerated.
How can French President Emmanuel Macron say “never again” if when he visits Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he doesn’t tell him that his state-run television must stop claiming that the Jews are “Satan, sons of monkeys and pigs,” that the “Jews, our enemy, are condemned to humiliation and suffering?” Moreover, why didn’t Macron ask Abbas to explain his vow not to allow Jews’ “filthy feet” to “defile our al-Aqsa Mosque”?
Anti-Semitism today is concrete, visible—and Europe will not take Israel’s side, even though the Europeans know this anti-Semitism will result in the murder of innocent Jews, in Israel and abroad. To think that the European Union thought it reasonable—even admirable!—to label Israeli goods from Judea and Samaria (why not with a yellow Star of David?), disputed territories Israel seized from Jordan, which illegally annexed them, in a defensive war. It puts the lie to any European protestation of opposition to anti-Semitism, as does the incessant harassment Israel suffers at the United Nations. At the 74th session of the United Nations in November, 18 resolutions were presented against Israel, one against Iran and two against Syria.
Never again? Only if the Jews continue to defend themselves, as they have now learned to do, on their own.
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