Printer Friendly

The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust.

The moralist Theodor Adorno once asked if poetry were possible after Auschwitz. The question is still open. Perhaps we can ask another question, decades after Adorno's. Are we fated to be overwhelmed by the industrially fabricated death of millions at the hands of a supposedly advanced nation? Must our response be purely cerebral, to allow us to function at all in the rest of our lives? Perhaps we can retain empathy for the victims, a passion for justice, and at the same time understand. We need not extend pardon (that exceeds; in many ways, our competence). We do need to grasp the Holocaust in ways that will heighten our own capacity for resistance in extreme situations. Above all, before we come to the point of needing to resist, we have to learn to create conditions that will eliminate, or severely reduce, the possibilities of future Holocausts.

Among Jews and Gentiles alike, the discussion of how to live after Auschwitz has grown in intensity with the passage of time. The nation of perpetrators, the Germans, wears its mark of Cain in perpetuity. Of course, some Germans claim a purely fictive normality, but the more intelligent know how illusory it is. The late Franz Josef Strauss was the leader of the German right. He once said that a people who had worked as hard as the Germans in the postwar period had earned the right to wish not to hear more of Auschwitz. Note the choice of words; Strauss did not suppose that reminders would cease.

Not only the perpetrators or guilty by-standers wished for surcease. The wish not to be reminded characterized survivors, and other Jews, after the war. The present plethora of inquiry, recall and reflection by artists, historians, philosophers, psychologists and theologians did not begin until a decade and a half after the event. Silence was just as great, if not greater, in what was the British Mandate in Palestine and, after 1948, the new state of Israel.

That is the beginning point of Tom Segev's book. Segev is an Israeli columnist, born in Jerusalem of German Jewish parents. He gives us an exacting, excruciating study of memory and its uses. His study of Israel's response to the Holocaust moves back in time to the Zionist settlement in the interwar British Mandate (a mandate from the League of Nations). He considers the Zionist response and the reaction of world Jewry to Hittler's seizure of power and the Nazi state before the outbreak of war in 1939. He continues with the tortured response of the Jews in Palestine to the war and the Holocaust. By the time he reaches the actual formation of Israel, the major themes of the book are clear. These are identical with the problems of the culture, history and politics of modern Jewry, the struggle between assimilationists and Zionists, the extreme divisions within Zionism (socialist humanists against nationalist tribalists, secularized Jews against the Orthodox). Israel's politics, its relations to the Diaspora and to the Gentile nations and to the Arabs, hardly, he reminds us, date from 1948.

Withal, Segev is a chronicler and not a historian. His chronicle is linear but interspersed with interpretation. He writes directly, even matter-of-factly, making the disturbing material all the more poignant and profound. The sober Segev acknowledges the primacy of passion, but he rightly supposes that moral passion demands of us that we envisage the world as it is. The straightforwardness of the text is, initially, deceptive. Behind the events we confront a succession of almost insupportable ethical and psychological dilemmas. Segev leaves little out, from the policies of governments and the arguments of politicians to the underlying movements in opinion and society. Once I began The Seventh Million, I could hardly set it down.

Much of the book deals with Israel's argument about the record of the Jewish Agency (the governing body of the Jewish community in Palestine under the Mandate) as it faced the Third Reich. German Jews came to Palestine from 1933 on, their arrival facilitated by direct financial and political dealings between the Jewish Agency and the German government. The Jewish already there, mostly Eastern European in origin, did not invariably appreciate these educated and often distant kin, most of whom were not Zionist and were not attracted to either the collective ideals of socialist Zionism or to the national ones of the other Zionists. They were, after all, very much imbued with German bourgeois culture. The Zionists in any case preferred pioneers to refugees. They did not regard the Jewish homeland as a place for the defenseless and weak but as a society for those who wished to fight the implacable hostility of the Gentiles. Not quite consistently, the Zionists would later argue that had Israel existed as a state before the war, many of the defenseless could have been saved. Later, Israel was to declare itself the privileged heir of the Warsaw ghetto, of the Vilna resistance. Both the left under Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Meir, Rabin and Peres and the right under Begin and Shamir were at pains to insist on their versions of their responses to Nazism and German conquest in Europe.

Nothing the Jews in Palestine, the Zionist movement or world Jewry could have done would have saved the European Jews once the Nazis embarked upon extermination in 1942. Before that, there were the limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine imposed by the British. The Jewish Agency, which was dominated by the socialists, insisted on retaining good relations with the British, so as to persuade them to make good on their promise of a Jewish national home after the war. The Zionist nationalists violently disagreed. Initially, the nationalists declared that Britain was the principal enemy, and even had fitful negotiations with the Germans once war began. When extermination (as distinct from brutal persecution) began, there was little to be done by the Jews alone except to lament.

In Palestine, life after a fashion went on. Fear of a victory by Rommel was for a while widespread - and utterly justified. Reports of the death factories afflicted the Zionists no less than the assimilated Jewish elites in America and Britain with disbelief, repression and desperate helplessness.

In 1944, Eichmann offered to send a million Jews out of Nazi Europe in return for supplies including 10,000 trucks. The Germans sent a Jew from Hungary to Turkey with the offer, which the Jewish Agency communicated to the American and British governments. It was seen as a bid by Himmler for a separate peace with the Western Allies, an effort to destroy the alliance with the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Allied governments let it be known that they had no place to put the Jews. The S.S. leaders, for their part, were misled by their own beliefs: They vastly overestimated the extent of Jewish influence on Western governments. Segev agrees with the critics of the Jewish Agency who argue that it could have done more on its own, that it could have prolonged the negotiations on some pretext. The Soviet Army was approaching Hungary, and more Jews could have been saved. The episode, later to figure in the sensational Kastner trial that shook Israel in 1954, had enormous weight - after the event. Did the Allies' recalcitrance alone, and not the inability of the Jewish Agency to behave more independently and determinedly, doom Jews who could have been saved?

By the end of 1949, 350,000 survivors of the Holocaust were in the new state, one of every three Jewish Israelis. Suffering from the trauma of the past, they found life in Israel terribly hard. The Warsaw ghetto rising notwithstanding, other Israelis did not quite conceal their skepticism that the European Jews had done enough to defend themselves. The survivors suspected that not enough had been done by those in the Mandate to help them in their agony in Europe. The original leaders of the Jewish Agency (Ben-Gurion among them) were certainly beset by self-doubt. The question was initially set aside in the struggle for the new state, the wars against the Arabs. That struggle provided a project upon which, for any number of motives and reasons, most could agree. The hopeless housing shortage faced by the immigrants of the immediate postwar period was resolved, in part, by the Jewish seizure of 100,000 houses abandoned by Arabs who had been driven out.

The Holocaust provided a rationalization. Jews could be safe in their own land only if they were ruthless with their enemies. The view that a Jewish state would save Jews from extermination was transmuted, by no easy stages, into something like its opposite; it was now the Jewish state that was daily threatened with extirpation. The aggression, brutality and hypermilitarization that has made up so much of Israeli politics (along with anguished protest at it, to be sure) was justified by a singular lesson: The Holocaust could come again, at any time. So far from being relegated to the past, it became a permanent feature of the present.

The Holocaust played a central role in the angry Israeli debate on its relations with an economically and politically resurgent West Germany. The nationalist Zionist insisted that there could be no contact with Germany and, above all, no request or acceptance of reparations for the irreparable. That would contravene Jewish honor, defile the memory of the martyrs. Many survivors thought otherwise: They were quite prepared to let the Germans pay. Ben-Gurion and other Labor leaders saw that Germany, with or without Israel's consent, was rapidly being integrated into a new Western alliance. Diplomatic contacts with Germany and negotiations between Germany and Israel (and world Jewry) were initiated early and had a tortous course. When Konrad Adenauer for Germany, Nahum Goldmann for world Jewry and the Israaeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett signed the reparations agreements in 1952, two consequences became clear. Adenauer had to struggle with his own party of six months to achieve ratification. So far from absolving the Germans, the agreements (and relations with Israel) obliged them - against the will of many - to take hesitant steps toward acknowledging their crimes. Further, German payments were as indispensable to the economic survival of Israel as support from the American Jewish community. The reparations agreement had a sequel - a half-covert military alliance between the two states, championed in Germany first by the leader of the right, Franz Josef Strauss, and later by his Social Democratic successors. Segev (who spent time in Germany as a correspondent) is especially acute on a chapter in Israel's history, and Germany's, not always fully appreciated in the United States. Not surprisingly, Adenauer was impelled to conclude the reparations agreement because he, too, was overly impressed with the view that Jews had enormous influence and power - although the old man was never a Nazi. When he was 90 and in retirement, he visited Israel. He said of the hostile demonstrators there that he was surprised how few there were. Younger Germans frequently developed a reflexive philo-Semitism as a way of distancing themselves from their nation's (and families') immediate past. The visit to Israel, the work period at the kibbutz, is a standard item in the lives of large numbers of Germans. Riots, of course, met the arrival of the first German Ambassador in 1965 - but Segev notes that the German Jews soon began to act as if the embassy were theirs.

The establishment of relations with Germany, rendering formal a set of ties long established, followed a singular series of events by which the Holocaust was taken out of the realm of the repressed and placed at the very center of Israel's public memory. In 1954, the government itself tried an otherwise obscure and obsessed journalist for slandering a senior official, Rudolf Kastner. Kastner had been a leader of the Hungarian Jewish community and had negotiated with the Nazis about ransoming Hungarian Jews. In the end, he was able to save himself and his family, some other community leaders and a group chosen by them - while the rest went to their death. The government, more precisely Ben-Gurion and Labor, had hoped to do away with an irritating calumny. The trial, however, was a sensation and had an unexpected outcome. It became a proceeding in which, symbolically, all the Jewish Councils with whom the Nazis worked were accused. The judge finally declared that Kastner, so far from having been slandered, had made a pact with the devil. He was later murdered under murky circumstances. Segev evokes the possibility that he might have been silenced because he knew too much about the relations between the Jewish Agency and the Nazis.

When the time came for Eichmann's trial, the government was careful in its stage-management. The state prosecutor worked closely with Ben-Gurion - and with Eichmann's German defense attorney. Fifteen survivors who sought to put the Jewish Councils on trial offered to speak in exculpation of Eichmann. His defense attorney refused to have them. It was less a trial of Eichmann, Segev holds, than a dramatic reminder to a younger Israeli generation, and the world, of the Holocaust - and its lessons. The Israelis, indeed, concerted their action with the German government. After all, they refrained from inflicting on Germany something far worse than trying Eichmann in Jerusalem. They could have put him on the first Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt and watched Germany's dismay. (The Israelis were told of Eichmann's where-abouts by the Social Democratic Premier of Hesse and the Jewish state attorney in Frankfurt, Fritz Bauer, both of them apparently afraid that a German effort to extradite him would have come to nothing).

The announcement of Eichmann's capture exalted the Israelis. The trial itself, with its unremitting concentrated on the details of horror, was the prelude to the institutionalization of the Holocaust. Of course, it provoked conflicts. Hannah Arendt's argument, that the Jewish Councils bore some of the responsibility for the deaths of millions, since without their collaboration the Nazis would have been far less efficient, was so shocking that her book was not at the time translated into Hebrew. A group of Israelis, the philosophers Hugo Bergmann and Martin Buber and theologian Gershom Scholem among them, asked that Eichmann not be put to death. No punishment, they said, could atone for the crime, and Israel could not allow the world to think that a death would settle accounts. Interestingly, some of the signatories were those who had always been most critical of the treatment of the Arabs: They clearly envisioned a morally sublime Israel.

With the Eichmann trial, the Holocaust became a vehicle for Israel's historical self-location. The difficulty was, and is, that different Israelis drew different lessons from it. "Hitler is already dead, Mr. Prime Minister," one of Begin's critics declared, challenging the Israeli right's insistence that the Holocaust was not only unique but in some way permanent. Indeed, the Holocaust Museum in Israel is termed Yad Vashem, "Everlasting Name," which implies that the event itself is somehow transcendent. The interpretation of the Holocaust, then, is inextricably tied to views not only of the past but of the present and the future. Many Israelis see in it a justification for utter intransigence and extreme repression toward the Arabs. (The American Jews so prominent among the fanatical colonizers of the West Bank clearly thought they would suffer a Holocaust if they remained in this country. It is paradoxical that their rejection of the United States has not led the comfortable American Jewish congregations who applaud or accept every Israeli policy to take a rather more differentiated approach to Israeli politics.) Others draw a universal conclusion from memory. The conditions that made the Holocaust possible were not unique, but instead of justifying Jewish encapsulation, the lesson is that a special responsibility falls upon Jews to side with the oppressed and the weak. The argument, in Israel, is part of daily life. At one point, Segev recounts, the Israeli Army suspended instruction about the Holocaust: Too many recruits considered it justification for treating the Arabs as the Germans had treated the Jews.

In an astonishing way, the debate continues the argument in the Diaspora between assimilationists and Zionists. The intransigent hold that the world is eternally hostile, the others that stability for Israel can come only through establishing a structure of justice and peace. It is interesting that many of the American Jewish neoconservatives seem to accept the Israeli right's understanding of the Holocaust - at once unique and permanently with us.

Segev observers that for all the attention given to the Holocaust in Israeli art and thought, direct description of it is not found in Israeli literature. I would have wished for more attention to the treatment of the Holocaust in Israeli philosophy and in Jewish theology. Hannah Arendt, in her argument with the Zionists, said that the glory of the Jewish people was their unique relationship to God. A relationship to the state of Israel (described by Arthur Hertzberg as the central religious belief of American Jews) is no substitute - is, indeed, a new form of worhip of the golden calf. Segev shows that one enormous wound inflicted by the Holocaust is a perpetual obsession, the elimination of the future in the face of a horrible past and an immensely threatening present. Some Israelis have now called upon their countrymen to consider whether their energies may not be spent more wisely. There is still a long period of anguish ahead. One of the most telling chapters of the book is an account of the visit by an Israeli school class to the death factories in Poland. Segev followed the students' preparation for the visit, and went along on the journey. The class returned divided in its philosophical response, some more embittered about Israel's situation than before, more intransigent toward the Arabs and suspicious of the Gentiles; other resolved to pursue, even if they did not quite put it that way, the ends of the original Enlightenment.

The Seventh Million, finally, is to be published in Germany. Segev implies that the institutionalization of the memory of the Holocaust has in fact made survivors of all who in one way or another are touched by the event. We are the seventh million. Amid the slaughters of 1993, we return to Adorno's question. Poetry is possible again if we accept that it is both infinitely precious and totally precarious. After Auschwitz, then, poetry demands that we struggle against the conditions that make it so precarious.
COPYRIGHT 1993 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Birnbaum, Norman
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 26, 1993
Words:3074
Previous Article:Propagandists to power.
Next Article:In My Own Sweet Time: An Autobiography.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters