What we did to the Jews
Many years ago, I came home after work. The house was dark, but the wooden floors and old plaster walls pulsed with the sound of classical music. The whole house was like a guitar, hollow and reverberating.
My then-girlfriend was there, in the dark, stretched out on the sofa. The music soaked the room, soaked her. She turned her head towards me, and the hall light passed across her face. There were tears hanging on her lashes, ready to fall like ripe pears to the soft earth.
“What is it?” I asked, alarmed. The music almost crushed my words.
“It’s just…” She trailed off. “I can’t believe what we did to the Jews.”
I nodded. When she said “we”, she meant her people in Europe, and maybe mine, who had watched while the noose slipped around the neck of Jewry, who stood silent as the trains pulled out of the stations, who turned away and chose to imagine some other fate for their Jewish neighbours. Something other than the truth.
“I know” was all I could say. I did know, although I must confess, the feeling of shame did not creep through me the way it did her.
She was a more sensitive being than I. That this young woman, born so long after the war, whose own family was almost destroyed by the war, could bleed tears of shame about the Holocaust, was a tribute to her good soul and to her good education. There were few like her and I fear, there are fewer today, twenty years after that conversation.
This morning, on Yom Hashoah 2016, the official day of remembrance of the destruction of the Jews, I fear that the roots of knowledge and of guilt, have begun to fray and weaken in us. The last camp was liberated over 70 years ago, the last survivors – then children or adolescents – are in their rickety old age. Memory flickers like a candle.
It is important that this occasion and memory, centre on the Jews, because we are beginning to lose our historical sense of the jeopardy they have known (and know). Since the time others found them, the Jews have been hated and persecuted. That was true in pre-Christian times, bloodily true in Christian times and now, as we seem to slide into some kind of post-Christian time, true still.
The Jews have always been – and remain – the target of relentless collective character assassination. And for many, the Jews are the target of a planned collective physical annihilation. There are millions of people in this world ready to finish Hitler’s work, or to stand by and watch while someone else finishes it.
It is not possible to intelligently judge middle eastern affairs, the conduct of Israel, the situation of the Palestinians and the bloody surge of genocidal Islamic jihad, without memory of what happened in Europe only a few years ago. The most developed, sophisticated and powerful European society – Germany – adopted a sudden creed of racial segregation and hatred. It then turned its military might on the other nations of Europe, claiming their land and cleansing it of Jews. It used its industrial resources to operate super-efficient murder factories.
The Final Solution, as the Nazis called it, was a mechanized mass murder program which operated for about four years. In that time, six million Jews (and many other people who were targeted alongside them) were murdered. If you do the math, that’s about four Jews per minute, every minute of every hour of every day of every month, for four years. Here’s how it works – count to 15:
“One, two , three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.”
That was about 15 seconds. That’s another Jew dead. Keep doing that, day and night, for four years. At the end, you’ll have six million dead.
Those who survived, who were few and who were broken and sick and terrified, found refuge where they could. The “world”, haunted by well-earned guilt for abandoning the Jews to the Nazi meat grinder, carved out a patch of sand in the Middle East and designated it a “Jewish State.” But of course, the small place made to protect the Jews has simply become the place to find them, to keep killing them.
That is not the whole story of Palestine and Israel. The whole story includes the displacement of Arabs from part of their ancestral land, so that fragment could be made into a haven for the world’s most hunted and harried people. Those Arabs and neighbouring countries, animated by real estate interests and by the brain infection of Jew hatred, have warred against Israel ever since.
Over time the Jews of Israel, because they are a successful pluralist society and because they are a liberal western democracy, have tried to make peace with the people who hate them. But the relentless and hardening intransigence of the Jew haters has made cohabitation or even a “two state solution” hard to believe in. So the dream of peace dims.
The problem with the Jews is that they are, in the diaspora and very much in Israel, among the most successful, sophisticated and pragmatic peoples of the earth. They are magnets for envy – the weak minded failures of the world, who are many, loathe the Jews for their advancement and achievement. What was true in the 1930s remains completely true in 2016 and, most likely, will be true one hundred years from now.
What that tells us, on this bright spring morning of remembrance, is that the Jews – wherever they may be – will pay for being who they are, by being targets. And as targets they must be on guard. And those of us who are not Jews must see that truth, must keep looking at that truth, must never forget that truth, must fight against that truth every day and must, whether we like it or not, stand on guard to help defend the Jews from their enemies.
“I can’t believe what we did to the Jews” she said.
I believe it. And I believe we are inches away from doing it again. To them, and perhaps to others. And only a fool believes otherwise.