Printer Friendly

The uses of the Holocaust.

It is the photograph that has come to symbolize the Holocaust: a small Jewish boy, frightened eyes downcast, hands raised above his shoulders, surrounded by Nazi troops. This is the final roundup of Jews scheduled for execution during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. More Jews, hands raised, can be seen in the background. We know as we stare at the photo that soon they will all be dead.

The photo appears in archives and exhibitions, in magazine and newspaper articles about the Holocaust, in television documentaries and history books. By now I must have seen it hundreds of times, and each time my reaction is what it was when I first saw it almost half a century ago: It could have been me.

That boy and I were about the same age fifty years ago, and if he had lived we would be about the same age now. Only happenstance kept me from being there in his place. My parents were Polish Jews who migrated to Vienna, where I was born. Their parents and most of their brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews--my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins--were among the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Once again this spring the inexpressibly sad photo of the frightened child has forced itself on our consciousness. It was widely published in connection with stories about the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It illustrated articles about the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto. And it was put to other uses, as well.

A few Sundays ago, the Warsaw photo appeared on the front page of The New York Times week-in-review section along-side another picture--one of a Serb soldier executing a dying man during the fighting in Bosnia. The two photos were linked by a caption headed ECHOES OF BUTCHERY. The headline over the story accompanying the photos asked, DOES THE WORLD STILL RECOGNIZE A HOLOCAUST? The article quoted the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher: "I never thought I'd see another holocaust in my life."

When I spoke on national television in opposition to U.S. military intervention in the Balkans, I received outraged calls and letters from viewers who accused me of forgetting the Holocaust. The Progressive, too, has been denounced for failing to recognize a direct analogy between what the Nazis did to the Jews and what the Bosnian Serbs are doing to their Muslim compatriots.

Eli Wiesel, the Nobel Prize winner who has spent his life trying to compel humanity to confront the stupefying horror of the Holocaust, used the occasion of his speech at the dedication of the Holocaust Memorial Museum to tell President Clinton, "I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that. We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country."

These are deeply moving words, and when they are uttered in the context in which Wiesel spoke, they are bound to have a powerful impact--especially on those who still bear, as many of us do, a sense of guilt about the Holocaust. But as a Jew I am compelled to say to my irate correspondents and Lady Thatcher and Eli Wiesel and the editors of The New York Times that I regard such invocation of the Holocaust as inappropriate and even offensive.

Lawyers tell me that one of the more obnoxious violations of due process is the practice called "selective prosecution." It entails punishing one party for conduct in which others may freely engage. I am appalled by the selective prosecution involved when the memory of the Holocaust is invoked in connection with one or another of the horrors with which our world is fraught, while ignoring all the rest.

I haven't the space here to catalog all of the abominations that might qualify today as holocausts, but here is a small sample: We hear hardly a word about the slaughter taking place right now in Sudan, where the toll in human lives eclipses even what is happening in Bosnia. Though the plight of the Kurds in Saddam Hussein's Iraq has been broadcast by our Government, Washington ignores the brutal oppression of their kin across the border in Turkey. Some 200,000 citizens of East Timor have been slain by the government of Indonesia--surely a holocaust by most standards. The brutal occupation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China is in the holocaust class. The extermination of Guatemalan peasants by that country's ruling elite would meet almost any test one might devise to define a holocaust. And so it goes.

The article in The New York Times--the one headed DOES THE WORLD STILL RECOGNIZE A HOLOCAUST?--found "a parallel to ships filled with Jewish refugees searching for a harbor ... when refugees from the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia are kept out of most European countries and form huge crowds outside embassies in Belgrade in hopeless quests for visas." I wonder how the parallel much closer to home eluded The Times--the parallel of ships crowded with Haitian refugees searching for a harbor and being turned back by U.S. Coast Guard vessels. Does The Times still recognize a holocaust?

I understand, of course, that the Government of the United States can't be expected to fix everything--in East Timor and Kurdistan and Sudan and Guatemala and all the other places where atrocities are being committed at this very moment. If it must try, I'd be grateful if it would confine itself, for a start, to curbing those crimes against humanity in which it is complicit, which happens to include many of those I just mentioned. But in any event, whatever course of conduct we may choose, let's not insult the memory of victims of the Holocaust by claiming to be acting in their name.

Ronald Steel, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, put the case succinctly and, I believe, precisely on the op-ed page of The New York Times: "While 'ethnic cleansing' is," he wrote, "an ugly policy of forced population transfer, intensified by a brutality endemic to Balkan wars, it is not genocide and not the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a systematic effort to eradicate a whole people from the face of the Earth. The Bosnian conflict is about the demand of ethnic groups to control the territory they live in. It is too bad that Bosnia is not a "gorgeous mosaic' (as Mayor David Dinkins would say) of happy tribes, but we cannot create it for them."

The well-organized and well-financed campaign for U.S. military intervention in Bosnia is by no means the first and only cause to have been propelled by recourse to the Holocaust. The movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine was obviously the first and most prominent beneficiary of the world's eagerness to atone for the Nazis' crimes against Jews. And after the state of Israel came into being in 1948, its leaders never hesitated to invoke the memory of the Holocaust for national ends--including the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the oppression of the people of those territories. (Reading Eli Wiesel's emotional appeal for action to "stop the bloodshed" in Bosnia, I recalled how often he has been asked to speak out against the Israeli persecution of Palestinians. To the best of my knowledge, he has always declined.)

Of late, I've also heard about the Holocaust from the indefatigable propagandists of the right-to-life movement. They compare physicians who perform abortions to the Nazi doctors who committed unspeakable atrocities against inmates of the death camps. The comparison is grotesque, but apparently there are gullible souls who embrace it. And I won't be surprised, one of these days, to see the Holocaust figure in television commercials, Broadway musicals and MTV videos. (If it's happened already, please don't bother to let me know.) Some years ago, when one of the major networks broadcast a glossy docudrama on the Holocaust, Eli Wiesel offered a sensible comment: "Now," he said, "millions of people will know what the Holocaust was; it was a color television series."

My response, to those who want to send U.S. bombers or troops to Bosnia and ask whether I've forgotten the Holocaust, is this: Not to worry, I remember. The photo of that young boy is never far from my consciousness. I think about the Holocaust every day, attempting to comprehend the unimaginable. We must remember, we must try to understand, so that we will never be like the "good Germans" who permitted monstrous crimes to be permitted in their names.

Let's remember the Holocaust by all means, but let's not use it for our own ends.
COPYRIGHT 1993 The Progressive, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Knoll, Erwin
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Kevin Costner's gold rush.
Next Article:Chameleon in the White House.

Related Articles
The button project.
Preview: Ballet Austin.
Letters? We got letters! Read on ...
Brownsville also appalled at racist sign.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters