When most people think about the Holocaust, the question that comes to the top of mind is “how could good people let this happen?” Personally, I think this is a bad question, as it suggests that there’s a vanguard of “good people” who were somehow negligent, rather than a collection of ordinary people, struggling their own struggles and bound to the communities with which they live and identify. Whether or not you call such people “good” is above my pay grade. But I find, if there’s any one lesson to take from the Holocaust, it’s that, in the right circumstances, communities of “good people” can commit horrible atrocities. The question is not “how could good people let this happen?”; the question is “how close to the surface does the monster lurk?”
This perspective has shaped the way that I think about the study of our history. Students of history will be asked is “how should one treat the Holocaust?” There is a line of argument which says that, when a historian gives an account of the Holocaust, he has a duty to illuminate the lives and stories of the victims.
I am sympathetic to this argument. There’s an unjust stink to a historical record in which the stories of the perpetrators are front and center and the stories of their victims are forgotten. Wouldn’t the innocent victims be the ones who deserve to have their narratives resurrected in our memories?
Additionally, there is a stronger claim that, in emphasizing the humanity of the Nazis, one comes close to justifying or making excuses for their actions. Does it make sense to “humanize” Hitler? The line is thin between understanding and apology, so the argument goes.
As one can imagine, I do not agree with this sentiment on several points. First, I do not believe that we are somehow giving the Nazis more than their due by exploring their humanity. You don’t explore the humanity of Nazis in order to reach the stupefyingly obvious realization that they were, in fact, human; you explore their humanity because you think it will help you better understand humanity. There is no triumph in this sort of history. On the contrary, to find yourself sympathizing with mass murderers ought to be a profoundly humbling experience. Your sympathy does not elevate the perpetrators of mass murder. It prompts you to reflect upon yourself.
My second point of disagreement is more principled. I do not believe that historians’ primary duty is the duty of all scholars: to answer a question. Although the stories of victims are essential to tell and remember, they alone do answer my question: “How close to the surface does the monster lurk?” and “What sets the monster free?”
These were the questions that my mind was churning over after my recent visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, Israel.
I’ve loved World War II history for a very long time. I trace it back when I was 11 or 12 and my mother read me Winston Churchill’s memoirs of the war, which I recommend every child be read, if only so that they are exposed to Winston Churchill’s gift for narrative prose. Once I knew a little of the history, I wanted to learn more. There is something grand about seeing all of the different stories that come together in this colossal period of history. In my 8th grade English class, I was the only one (boy or girl) who chose The Diary of Anne Frank for my elective reading– over options like Lord of the Flies, which should really have been a lot more appealing to someone in my demographic. At my mother’s recommendation, I also read the memoirs of Meip Gies, the Dutch citizen who hid the Frank family in her attic during the Nazi occupation. I spent one summer in high school watching the Winds of War and War and Remembrance miniseries on DVD. When my family visited London, I made sure to visit Churchill’s war bunker. When I learned that Ellie Wiesel’s was speaking at my university, I set aside my course work to read Night. And so on…
The Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum was not simply another piece of World War II history to add to the list. It was different for me– profoundly moving but also deeply harrowing. It was moving because it made the human cost of the Holocaust vivid and perceptible to me than any other history I have encountered. It was harrowing because, more than any other I’ve seen, I could see history being sculpted into a driving, forceful political narrative– and only God knows where that narrative could take us.
It’s hard to exaggerate the power of this museum. The architecture speaks in a way that is almost as powerful as the exhibits. The Museum itself is a massive cement hallway, with wall sloping towards each other to close off at the top. From the outside, it look like this:
The inside is a bleak cement expanse, creating a simultaneous sense of enclosure and of being very, very small.
The ground slopes downwards, creating a sense that one is descending into the mountain.
The first exhibit documents the history of antisemitism in Europe. It has appropriately anti-Semitic quotes from Saint Augustine, from popes, from various heads of state, alongside disgusting portrayals of Jews in art and propaganda. The Jew as the devil. The Jew as the fat, greedy banker, covered with the ichor and entrails of his latest meal.
The next room has the little gold stars and white armbands that were used to mark Jews in Nazi occupied territories, along with mementos and diaries written in Italian, Polish, Yiddish, and German. There is a wall of photographs, some with charred and crumpled edges. One young man is on a bike, while the other plays croquet.
And so on. I did not move with any particular tour group, though there many snaking their way through the museum, led in a variety of different languages. There were also a lot of school groups passing through, as it was the evening before Holocaust Remembrance Day (later that evening, Benjamin Netanyahu would make a speech from the grounds, which meant that the visiting hours were cut short).
Some exhibits covered the concentration camps and the forced extermination (beneath the floor, visible through a glass plate, was a pile of charred shoes that once belonged to members of the concentration camps).
Another exhibit documented Jewish flight from Europe, with an entire wall devoted to the “Voyage of the Damned”, a ship which carried nearly 1000 Jewish refugees away from Nazi Germany, only to be rejected from every allied port and forced to return to Europe, where its passengers would ultimately die in concentration camps. A quote from an Australian official, blown up on the wall of this exhibit, says “We do not have a race problem, and we have no desire to import one”.
There were more exhibits, of course (covering the gas chambers, the discovery and liberation of the concentration camps, the programs to re-connect orphaned children with their living family, etc…), but I’d like to take a step back, and describe the narrative.
Although ostensibly about the history of the holocaust, Yad Vashem is a very brazen argument for the necessity of Jewish solidarity. So history tells us, the world is hostile to Jews, who, wherever they go, find themselves persecuted, expelled, targeted for extermination, or denied refuge from the people targeting them. Israel, the argument goes, is the one place where this can’t happen.
The last room in the museum is called the Hall of Names, and there is a sense that this room could be the center of an entire nation. The room circular balcony overlooking walls of shelves. These shelves hold hundreds of volumes— each listing names and short biographies of people who died during the Holocaust. It is connected to rows of computers where people can search the archives for their family name, and instructions on how to add the story of one’s own deceased relatives to the records.
I remember standing in this room and feeling a perverse desire to type my name into the archives to see if anything would come up. I am not Jewish, and my better judgment ultimately prevailed. But there was a part of me that desperately wanted to be a part of this– to tie my history in with the history of these people, who had pulled through so much hardship.
Leaving the Hall of Names, I found myself standing in front of a great triangular window with sunlight streaming through in brilliant contrast to the dull, cement fixtures of the rest of the museum. On the other side of this window, a balcony hung off the side of Mt. Herzl, opening onto stunning view: a valley resting between green hills, covered in parts by a patchwork quilt of houses, the suburbs of Jerusalem, gleaming white in the noontime sun.
The image is not subtle. It manages to capture both the natural beauty of the land and the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have made their home here. This is the promised land. Its existence is guaranteed by a strong, and unflinching Jewish state.
I should perhaps step back for a moment. As an American, it has always been a challenge to wrap my head around Israeli political commitments, particularly the commitment to a “Jewish State”. I come from a culture where the wall of separation between religion and government is deeply ingrained.
And yet, I understand how this commitment forms within a world where Jewish State is necessary to shelter the Jewish people from forces bent on their destruction.
This narrative is scary to me because of how easily it can blind people to evils committed by their state.
I remember as I walked through the museum coming across a tour guide who talking about the effort after the war to round up members of the Nazi high command. One the wall, there were pictures of the men who orchestrated the Final Solution. The tour guide was having some fun talking about them. “How many of these people do you think were the blond haired, blue-eyes ubermensch?” she asked her tour group. The answer was that none of them were. She also pointed out that of the 11 masterminds, something like 9 of them were medical doctors “It was the intellectual elite that orchestrated the final solution,” she said. “It was the doctors”.
This is, of course, true. The scientific extermination campaign, with gas chambers and ovens, was the doing of an intellectual elite. Arguably, the Holocaust was the first time in history that a cadre of scientific elite at the head of an industrial nation dedicated themselves to the task of mass murder, which caused it to be uniquely horrible. But the majority of the German people did not know the full extent of the Final Solution; the existence of gas chambers and ovens, even the true purpose of concentration camps, was a well-kept secret. But why keep this a secret?
The answer is simple: the German people did not need to know. If it were known, it would only increase the risk that human sympathies would leak through their nationalistic conviction. They may have hated the Jews, yes. But hate alone doesn’t motivate genocide (if it did the world would have a lot more genocide). Far more than their hatred, Holocaust needed the German people to be distracted. It needed them to look the other way while the elites executed their plan.
Nothing is more distracting than a promise.
Germany elected Hitler because he promised to restore German strength. He promised to conquer lands for the German people. He promised that Germany would never fall under foreign subjugation. Faced with this promise, it is easy to ignore the disappearance of the Jews. It’s easy to stay resolute in one’s conviction that what is done must have been done for a just and noble cause, the good of the German people. It is easy to see the conquest of other land for your people as good and natural. It is easy to ignore the muted suffering of other people.
This is what I fear is happening in Israel. Of course, not gas chambers, nothing on that scale. But a political narrative that blinds the people to the suffering around them, where if one asks “what is my country doing?” the answer is always “what is necessary” and that is that.
What is being done? To describe in detail what has happened and is currently happening to Palestinians in Israel is a job for another post. However, in hearing accounts of friends who have had contact with both Israelis and Palestinians, one thing has become plain to me: whatever injustices are being inflicted upon Palestinians in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank escape the notice of most Israelis.
Narratives shape the way that we see the world, highlighting some patterns while muting others. Some people may accuse me of dictating how people remember and honor their history. I am not. I am simply pointing out that there are ways to honor one ancestors and remember a profound tragedy that are not tied to a nationalistic narrative. One may sincerely believe that narrative, but one should take into account the potential of such narratives to set free monsters.
Though who am I to say?
I just had a bad taste in my mouth after I walked out of the Children’s Memorial and found myself face-to-face with a book on the Israeli Air Force, displayed proudly, unavoidably, in the center of the gift shop.