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A REFRESHER ON THE LESSONS OF THE SHOAH

By: Dave Gordon



About one in eight Americans hold anti-Semitic views. Some four-fifths of those holding anti-Semitic views believe that Jews have too much power in business. And nearly three quarters of respondents in the Anti-Defamation League’s most recent survey on anti-Semitism, accuse Jews of controlling Wall Street.

The Shoah (Jewish Holocaust) didn’t happen overnight. It began with attitudes like these in the, perhaps surprisingly, fertile environment of an “enlightened” and modern 20thcentury Europe. And it progressed – virtually unchallenged by the general populace – relatively slowly, one event at a time, until it was too late for decent people to do anything about it. It is upon this basic premise – that, had ordinary people imagined the unspeakable atrocities that the growing tide of anti-Semitism would lead to, they would have spoken up sooner to prevent it – that the importance of Holocaust education is based.

At the forefront of efforts to expose the horrors of the Holocaust, stands Yad Vashem, a tangible establishment marking the six million lives that were savagely destroyed and giving memory to those who perished. In the institution’s latest initiative along its mission to bring the lessons of the Shoah to a wider audience, Yad Vashem hosted a delegation of 11 specially-selected journalists – in which I was privileged to be included – for a week of seminars at the Yad Vashem campus in Jerusalem.

The Yad Vashem Experience

The museum guides the visitor through exhibits in chronological order, zigzagging from display to display as though to force viewing in a purposefully uncomfortable setting. The concrete, grey walls and ceiling were built as an upward ascending triangle, representing a Star of David that is cut in half.

There we saw a scale model of a gas chamber, and we learned that a company called Topf und Sohne was hired to design and build four gas chambers and a crematorium. In case anyone in the future wanted to perpetrate another genocide, they patented the design. The facility was capable of murdering 4,756 people in 24 hours – they guaranteed it in writing.

That so much was recorded, and written down, means it is within our language and power to communicate the Shoah, said historian and scholar Professor Yehuda Bauer, Professor Emeritus of History and Holocaust Studies for Yad Vashem.

There weren’t just six million victims, however. There were six million human stories of life, said Shulamit Imber, Pedagogical Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies.

“We need to start teaching life prior to the Shoah,” she said, noting that the Jews of Europe lived lives much like our own, as roughly 70 percent lived in large cities and not shtetls (villages).

“How did they learn to live among the chaos?” she asked.

One of the ways was to explore humane moral issues “in a world of choice-less choices.” To cite just one example, at one point Jewish doctors gathered and wrestled deeply with the ethical issue of how to distribute what little medicine they had.

When Good People Do Nothing

Meanwhile, the world outside was less concerned with the Nazi perversion of morality. Dr. David Silberklang, editor-in-chief of Yad Vashem Studies, related that both media and international reaction was slow, or a show, or suppressed.

Dr. Silberklang gave an overview of The Bermuda Conference, the international gathering held on April 19, 1943 in Bermuda. Discussions were to include how to address the issue of Jewish refugees in Allied and Axis territories. Yet, the conference made no mention of the Final Solution. And Jewish representatives were refused entry.

Bermuda was chosen as the venue for the conference so that it would be inaccessible to most media.

It is widely believed that for Great Britain and the United States – the conveners of the conference – the exercise was a façade designed to hush growing outcries over the fate of European Jewry.

To his credit, Winston Churchill expressed his outrage on radio over the extermination of tens of thousands of Jewish people. But for political considerations, officials demanded he discontinue mentioning it, as that information was acquired through German code-cracking, and dissemination of such could potentially compromise opportunities to intercept future communiqués.

Holocaust revisionists count on the dearth of reports to advance their claims, said Ephraim Kaye, Director of the International Seminars, who discussed Holocaust denial.

In a television clip, American Holocaust denier Bradley Smith wondered why people must be “unusually sensitive to a certain small fragment of the population.” He cynically asked, “Are the Jews more important?”

In the seminar, Kaye responded, “The Jews never said they were more important. The Germans did.”

Nazis forced Jews in the Lodz Ghetto to make SS uniforms, he added. “Why would you kill a viable workforce? It doesn’t make sense. The deniers count on that.”

The Few Who Did Something

In the shadow of great terror and the Nazi killing machine, there were those who refused to stand by and allow Jews to be harmed. They were the Righteous Among the Nations.

“If everything is dark, we will never be able to build another world,” said Irena Steinfeldt, director of the Department for the Righteous Among the Nations. “We must find meaning in a world where Auschwitz was a possibility, to not only commemorate the victims but remember the heroes.”

She added that these heroes do not fit any particular profile. “The Righteous come from a diverse background. They are circus performers, farmers, soccer players and janitors who went to great lengths to save a Jewish life, and one even went so far as to save a Jew in a sewer for 14 months.”

50 Years Since the Eichmann Capture

Some two million people each year visit Yad Vashem. Two years ago, that number included 30 Palestinian youth who came to the museum, at the behest of a Palestinian studying in the US. A year later, two similar groups came to visit. The delegation also saw the recently-opened exhibit marking 50 years since the capture and trial of notorious Nazi, Adolf Eichmann. Among the items in the exhibit were archived materials never before shown in public.

Among many other crimes, Eichmann gave the order to build rail tracks into Auschwitz. He zealously stepped up the machination of genocide even when it became clear that Nazi resources were needed to fend off the Allies.

The exhibit photos show that after the war, he obtained documents under false pretenses from the International Red Cross and fled to Argentina, using the assumed name Ricardo Klement. In 1960, after several weeks of Mossad surveillance of his home and habits, he was captured, drugged, and disguised as an El Al flight attendant, and spirited away to Israel where he stood trial.

Found on his person upon arrest were several ordinary items which are now behind a glass display: Argentine coins, glasses, and identification papers. Also displayed is a letter Eichmann wrote en route to Israel confessing his guilt, and his fingerprints and mug shots taken by Israeli security, twice signed by him. The trial, filmed in black and white, was previewed at the Yad Vashem exhibit.

Never Again

“It is a reference point for man’s inhumanity towards man,” said Robert Rosett, director of the Yad Vashem library, summing up how the Holocaust and its perpetrators were unique among world events.

“The Shoah was singular in relation to other genocides. It was about Jews being evil simply because they existed. No other genocide happened because the murderers thought they killed for the good of mankind.”

From the schematics of death, to the moral struggles, to the world’s reaction, to modern efforts to record and remember, Yad Vashem seeks to illuminate the sheer immensity of the Shoah, and how it is incumbent upon all of mankind to realize and continually learn from its difficult and grave lessons.