Thursday, May 1, 2008

Holocaust Remembrance Week III--"Holocaust"?

Where we're running a series of posts in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year is on Friday, May 2.

Earlier today I was approached by a JJ reader who wanted me to flesh out some of the things I had said on Monday's Holocaust post, especially regarding the Holocaust's position alongside other historical genocides.

Look. This is an exceedingly touchy subject. Obviously the entire Holocaust is, but what makes this so sensitive is that there are survivors alive today who I fear would feel disrespected by my conclusion. Now that we're some 60 years beyond the Holocaust, it's just too easy to be casual and flippant when comparing the Holocaust to other genocides.

This is why I said that nobody should ever say that any genocide is worse than another. It elevates the status of one people's lives above that of another country. I don't care how a people are massacred. Whether millions are killed by gas or by machete is irrelevant to me--a human life is a human life. And when they are wasted according to some bogus racial ideology it makes their deaths more iniquitous than, perhaps, a carjacking murder, but no Tutsi's death is/was better or worse than a Jew's.

And for that matter, I'm not so interested in how many are murdered. I have trouble imagining any collection of corpses larger than maybe 300. It becomes hazy to me. So whether it's one million or six million, why does it matter? Is the Rwandan genocide really 5 million bodies less appalling than the Holocaust?

Let's be perfectly straightforward here. The definition of the word "Holocaust" (despite how I and most people use it) does not necessarily include the death of 6 million Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany.

A "Holocaust" is a massive conflagration that results in utter destruction.

Really, then, it's a symbolic word--not unlike using the phrase "ethnic cleansing" to refer to the deaths in Bosnia in the 1990s.

And to a certain extent, one could argue that it is unfair to bestow the term Holocaust only on to the Jewish genocide. Well, I don't know about that. While I don't believe that the Holocaust can be elevated above other genocides, I do think that it can be distinguished from them. Indeed, each and every one of history's genocide's has distinct and unique characteristics.

I alluded a bit to what separates the Holocaust from other 20th century genocides on Monday. But here's what doesn't separate the Holocaust: the fact that a ridiculous amount of people were murdered in cold blood and the murder was officially sanctioned and carried out by the highest powers in government.

Also, that the idea of a "Jewish plague" (so well explained by Hitler in his Mein Kampf, right) was pervasive in the very foundation of Nazi Germany is not unique. The main justification for most of the other 20th century genocides, as far as I understand them, also involved "cleaning" a country of its "parasites."

I think what does separate the Nazi version, however, is that it occurred in such a large and Western state. This is what's so shocking about the Holocaust. While many people have (partly correct) notions of Africa and Southeast Asia as less educated and therefore closer to barbarism, this was Germany! Home of some of the world's greatest philosophers and artists and musicians and thinkers.

And the Holocaust also received a large amount of scrutiny after the fact thanks to the testimonies of perpetrators at the Nuremberg Trials and the Eichmann Trial, and thanks to the testimonies of survivors like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel who wrote about their experiences.

I have yet to read testimonies of the other 20th century genocides that appear on the New York Times bestseller list.

But again, this is not to say that the Holocaust is at all "worse" than other genocides.

Here's what I'll conclude. Because of its scope and enormity, because of its pseudo-intellectual basis, because of its highly structured execution, the Holocaust is probably the most impressive genocide of the 20th century. But isn't killing one million Tutsis in 100 days "impressive"???

Ugh, this makes me sick.

It all comes down to my original point: that any discussion of genocide comparison is grotesque and inappropriate. I tried, really. The victims' deaths deserve to be honored and studied so that we and future generations don't allow their deaths to have been in vain--we must learn so we can prevent it from happening again.

Today's Holocaust art is a poem, much different from the painting I posted yesterday.

The poem is "Babi Yar" by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (who I saw read once here in DC, and he was so animated and passionate and emotional when he read, it was truly beautiful...even if I could hardly understand the words through his thick Russian accent). It is about the massacre there, which I referred to in yesterday's discussion of the Einsatzgruppen.

Translated by Benjamin Okopnik, 10/96

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o'er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself. *1*
The Philistines betrayed me - and now judge.
I'm in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I'm persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok *2*
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I'm thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of "Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!"
My mother's being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The "Union of the Russian People!"

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I'm in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed - very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-"They come!"

-"No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!"

-"They break the door!"

-"No, river ice is breaking..."

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I'm every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May "Internationale" thunder and ring *3*
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that's blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that's corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!



1 - Alfred Dreyfus was a French officer, unfairly dismissed from service in 1894 due to trumped-up charges prompted by anti- Semitism.

2 - Belostok: the site of the first and most violent pogroms, the Russian version of KristallNacht.

3 - "Internationale": The Soviet national anthem.

Photos by bbc and amazon.