Elie Wiesel penned his first memoir about being a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps while traveling on a ship from Europe to Brazil in 1954.
Later, reworking those initial Yiddish words into a longer text in French, he adopted a much more measured tone than that of his original wrathful writing, the aim of which was not only to remember, but also, essentially, to seek revenge.
His choice to do so has been repeatedly elaborated on by the survivors of the “absolute death”: a collective memory and tale of horror, expressed with a yearning for recovery and forgiveness, as well as optimism for the future of the Jewish people.
This is but one of many paradoxes worth highlighting today, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, each story recounted from the Shoah raises 1,000 questions, all disturbing. And the more vivid the descriptions, the greater the shock at how inexplicable an event it was—unless, of course, we accept the simplistic and useless rhetoric about it that is still alive and well today.
Take, for instance, the slew of conspiracy theories linking Jews and Israel to the coronavirus pandemic—both as spreaders of the disease and of denying vaccines to the Palestinians. It’s a classical anti-Semitic trope, replete with cartoons reminiscent of those published by Der Stürmer. Indeed, the Hydra of anti-Semitism continues to reveal its many revolting heads.
We, the children and grandchildren of survivors (such as my uncle, Nedo Fiano, who heroically recounted his experiences at Auschwitz to the younger generations, and my father, Alberto Nirenstein, one of the first Holocaust historians, who testified on behalf of his murdered family through his books) have become more and more alone with the passage of the time. While they spent their lives recalling and retelling, it is now up to us to keep their memories alive. Not an easy task.
Regretfully, but for the sake of greater understanding, I refer to a speech delivered by Heinrich Himmler, the “architect of the Final Solution,” to the Reichsleiters and Gauleiters in the town hall of Posen, Germany, on Oct. 6, 1943—as cited in Annette Wieviorka’s 2006 book The Era of the Witness.
“I ask of you that which I say to you in this circle be really only heard and not ever discussed,” he said. “We were faced with the question: what about the women and children? I decided to find a clear solution to this problem, too. I did not consider myself justified to exterminate (only) the men—in other words, to kill them or have them killed while allowing the avengers of our sons and grandsons in the form of their children to grow up. The difficult decision had to be made to have this people disappear from the earth … The Jewish question in the countries that we occupy will be solved by the end of this year … In the distant future, we may pose the problem of whether to say anything about this to the German people … We assume the responsibility of carrying this secret with us to the grave.”
In the quintessential decision that represents the entire Shoah (i.e. the killing of all Jewish children), there was therefore also the decision to erase its memory—to “take this secret to the grave.”
What is this secret? And what does it mean to remember and thus understand the Shoah?
On this subject there is a lot of confusion, but its epitome is the denial of the Holocaust, on the one hand, and the promise on the part of Iran to destroy the State of Israel, on the other. The rationale is to murder the memory of the Shoah, and to start murdering Jews again.
Terrorism that denies Jews their history as indigenous to the Middle East, and places them in a universe of abstract evil, has as its ultimate goal their annihilation.
The Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust were real, resilient, numerous and wanted to live. The Shoah was perpetrated against them—not against a mass of faceless “victims.”
Nor should victimhood be seen as the main characteristic of Jewish history. On the contrary, the Jewish people must be viewed in its vital, cultural, multi-millennial entirety, with its amazing epilogue—Israel, the Jewish state.
The unexpected surge of aggressive anti-Semitism manifests itself in the widespread ignorance about and ease with which the Holocaust is exploited, even by members of the U.S. Congress, particularly the so-called “Squad” led by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Such people on the left shamelessly invoke and propagate the age-old stereotype of Jews controlling the banking system and government—while adding the modern political demonization, which involves accusing Israel of being an apartheid state.
At the same time, there is an emergence of anti-Semitism from the right, with Nazi and white supremacist symbols and activities cropping up around Europe and across the United States.
All of the above goes hand-in-hand with widespread and deeply rooted Islamic anti-Semitism.
Still, there has been an attempt to fight anti-Semitism and spread knowledge of the Shoah. Many countries around the world joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and adopted its definition of anti-Semitism. And numerous “special envoys” were appointed to monitor and combat it. In addition, thousands of initiatives have been launched, such as specialized studies, school courses, field trips to Auschwitz, films, TV series and more.
The story is generally narrated as a battle in which evil, represented by the awful black bird of Nazism perched on Germany and the world, acted to create the underlining event that defines the Jewish people. It is if to convey that the suffering of the Jews should, in itself, become the way to deter subsequent aggression against them specifically, or more generally to prevent oppression, injustice and genocide.
But does it work? Apparently not.
Yad Vashem, the famous Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, is rich in documentation, exhibitions and archives that include hundreds of thousands of testimonies. A necessary stop during any visit to Israel, it was created in 1953, after years of preparation and the country’s legislating of the Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Law.
Later, Yad Vashem became home to an amazing and moving collection not only of historical data, but of portraits of individuals like any one of us, selected for extermination by the Nazis solely as a result of their being Jewish—all slaughtered, after being stripped of their livelihoods, goods and families.
Initially, Yad Vashem made a clear interpretative choice of self-description: In the garden in front of the old building stood the statue of Mordechai Anielewicz, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising leader killed by the Nazis at the age of 24. My father, who in the years after the war participated in the discovery of the vestiges of the ghetto buried in bins under its ruins, spoke of him with veneration. Anielewicz served as a model of commemoration and inspiration for a return to life.
The statue is of a young man leaning towards freedom in the midst of battle. This was how Yad Vashem wanted the victims of the Shoah to be remembered, particularly at a time when the Jewish people was being revived in the fledgling State of Israel, already besieged by enemies.
This coupling of pain and heroism as the path to redemption has illuminated some important events of the Shoah: the revolt at Sobibor (the concentration camp where my paternal grandparents and five of their children were killed); the ghetto uprisings against the Germans; wonderful characters, such as the pedagogue Janusz Korczak, who went with his children to die in Treblinka; and the “Righteous Among the Nations,” non-Jews who risked or paid with their lives to rescue Jews.
The vast body of memoirs about the Holocaust have given rise to endless debate on the question of whether it is good to relive such memories. The philosopher Avishai Margalit, for example, identifies some destructive elements in the focus on memory, which has the potential to lead to a neurotic desire for revenge. He challenges the Freudian idea that freeing a society of its memory by delving into it is necessary to achieving a peaceful balance.
The Italian chemist, partisan and writer Primo Levi, one of the greatest constructors of memory, even argued that those who remembered, didn’t really see the Gorgon in depth, and those who really knew it, didn’t survive to remember and recount.
The great Yiddish literature professor Ruth R. Wisse thinks that “Holocaustology” is a way of avoiding a direct encounter with the Jewish people, who neither wanted nor intended to become the parable of the second crucifixion.
Homage to murdered Jews becomes morally wrong when it takes precedence or becomes a substitute for an admiring and righteous look at the contemporary flourishing of the Jewish people in the State of Israel. This is even worse when the pretense of defending the Jews is limited to dead Jews, especially while Israel is being bombarded by false accusations disguised as political criticism.
The perversion of what the late scholar of anti-Semitism Robert Wistrich called “inverted Nazism” goes so far as to accuse Jews of being Nazis, and is the most paranoid and alarming of all forms of “memory.” This form is practiced not only by the likes of Hamas and their allies, who call Israelis “Nazis” for defending themselves against terrorist attacks, but also by the haredi Jews in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak who call Israeli police officers “Nazis” for trying to enforce the government’s coronavirus restrictions.
But the most prevalent distortion of Holocaust remembrance today is in the use of the Shoah to convey a universalist message about evil of any kind. Though it’s true that the Nazis also killed homosexuals, Roma (Gypsies) and other despised social and ethnic groups—all of whom must be remembered, defended and safeguarded, just as should the victims of the Ottoman genocide of Armenians or the abuse of Uyghurs in China.
This is beside the point, however. The Nazis made a very specific choice to annihilate the Jews. The war against them was political and ideological, technical and moral and conducted with the help of most of the populations that Adolf Hitler had crushed. The Final Solution was the most powerful ideology of the Old Continent, a force that united conquerors and the conquered, as Wisse underlines.
The victory over Nazism is not a gift to the Jews of European countries that, with American help, won the war. Nor has anti-Semitism lost the war. But when the State of Israel was born, the Jewish people won by becoming a concrete entity on the world stage.
The Nazi theories of Hitler and Alfred Rosenberg, according to which the Jew is not only part of an evil race, but also an antitype, a bastard par excellence, someone who belongs to abstract universalism, rather than what as opposed to what Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, in The Nazi Myth, called a “man of the singularized and concrete identity.” Those theories are still alive, crossing over from Nazism to the communist narrative, and then to that of anti-Israelism—the belief that the Jews don’t belong anywhere, and that their presence in Israel is solely one of “colonizer,” cruelly exploiting other people’s goods.
The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland, Florida, launched a photo exhibit in November, in memory of African American George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 last year. The center explained that it was using lessons of the Holocaust “to build a community free of anti-Semitism and all forms of prejudice and intolerance … the photos speak of a story that contains a universal message that can unite us.”
It’s a nice idea, but the Shoah was not merely one form of oppression and generic prejudice; it was the pre-mediated implementation of a plan to exterminate the Jews. The Nazi realization of the Nazi ideology to kill Jews was calculated and precise, with details of the people targeted and the number of convoys and gas chambers that would be required to carry out the job.
The Bible links the act of remembering to the concept of survival. “Now swear to me,” says Samuel (24:21), “that you will not exterminate my descendants after me or blot out my name.”
His “descendants and name” are the Jewish people.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
This article was translated from the Italian by Amy Rosenthal.