Talking Holocaust, again

On invitation by Tim Kucharzewski I participated online in a seminar hegave in the context of his engagement in European adult education on democracy, history and enlightenment. This is not a condensed summary of my research on the topic of Shoah, but a kind of transitional motivation for further discussions and commitment to a theme that is never going to die, but must be renovated all the time.

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Shoah today – Memory, Reminiscence, and Fake

Michael Daxner

14 October 2021

Online[1]

Dear participants,

Talking about Shoah has become a necessary routine on many levels, whenever reminiscence, memory and obliviousness of important periods or moments in our history become thematic. There are no longer around too many witnesses of the terrible events, there are less survivors and even not too many second and third generation persons who are affected by the Holocaust ‘directly’. Do we need to apologize for never letting go the topic? Do we need new concepts in a discourse that has had the profile of a never-ending loop?

I am grateful for the invitation discussing the answers with you, and yet it is difficult, because I come from a generation, where the history of the answers did affect private lives and politics likewise in a way that will be impossible in the future.

Too many comparisons, that’s one of my problems. The comparison between actual contemporary atrocities, torture, dictatorships and other human-made disasters with the Holocaust or the Shoah, as I prefer to call it.

Of course, comparison is always necessary and often unavoidable, but if there is an inflation of a certain attitude, it becomes flawed and incredible; the comparison is losing effect. Thus, the Shoah is becoming less relevant and significant when it is compared with each cruel event in present times. On the other hand: if you don’t compare, you don’t understand. Not enough comparisons, that’s another one of my problems.

When I visited Auschwitz/Oswieczim for the first time, I watched other visitors and how they expressed their interests and feelings. I was astonished that they were less interested in the gas chambers, where human beings were killed, than in the cremation ovens, where their dead bodies became annihilated. Later in the day, I was really shocked and emotionally driven by walking over a meadow with most beautiful flowers and very green grass: underneath, there were the ashes of hundreds of thousand people[2].

Let me start with a personal note. Born into a family, where my father was Jewish and my mother half, it took years until understood the full reality, call it truth. Many members of the family had died in the Shoah, there were survivors on both sides, not many, but sufficient to bring me up in a pseudo-Christian environment, where Judaism was ignored. I had to learn my own history during my childhood and adolescence, fully aware of the facts not until I was sixteen, and by then my sources were entangled. At the age of 18 I quit the church, a few years later – under some troubles for a secular young scholar – I “converted” back into a Jewish community. Since then, I am engaged as a rather earthly activist in Jewish organizations, I have been teaching in Jewish studies since the mid-90s, and I did some research. All this was never in the centre of my professional life, but it became a steady companion of both private and public communication. Survivor’s Guilt was not my profile, nor was it the exaggerated Jewishness of a late returnee. In a way, I have become a survivor of survivors’ guilt terrain. Of Course, the Shoah and its narratives were ever present in my work. Of course? However, I am opposing any elevation of the Shoah as the turning point in history. Terrible as it was, the Shoah has been and still is part of history, and whether it is our history, as human beings, as Jews, as Europeans, as Germans etc., is also an effect from the context into which we put it. The Shoah has been real, and nobody should even dare to neglect it. But what reality it was, and how it still influences our present lives, is not a self-explaining fact. For me, the Shoah is company to both, the Jewish studies I am committed to, and my mainline research in Conflict studies and Sociology. It had an influence on my family life, this goes without saying, but also on my political and public agenda. One cannot put down this coat.

The Shoah still has a different impact on the cultural and political lives in Germany and Austria, and in Israel, than on other nations’ understanding. This is easily to explain, – and most of the explanations are questionable.

*

Let us start from another angle: None of you is an eyewitness of the Shoah; many of you have seen the memorial sites, the former concentration camps, the monuments; you know the position of the Shoah in your curricula and in everyday discourse, you may know jokes, Jewish or anti-Semitic, referring to the Shoah; you may have read historiography, or personal accounts – Anne Frank as a symbolic figurehead, or a person close to your family, or one with a certain reputation in your cultural or political environment. It is likely that you have perceived the air of a survivor, still alive, or his or her representation, you have seen movies and other features, and you have learned about the Shoah, mainly by reading and discussing. And there is one aspect that might be important in the future as well: all of us, and you certainly, know about the processing of the Holocaust in diverse forms of trials and the elaboration of justice, you know the defence of the perpetrators, you have learned about bystanders and seemingly innocent persons, and the Shoah has become a narrative, perhaps far away from your experience or immediate contact with affected persons, “real” survivors.

That is one of the reasons why we meet today. The Shoah has become a landmark in global history, and it will need more und differentiated understanding, the further the real events of the Holocaust are gliding into the past. So, we may also discuss why you might be interested in the Shoah, why it has become part of this seminar, why Tim Kucharzewsky and Silvia Nicola have invited me to talk here, and to discuss with you.  

*

Within the diverse discourses about the Shoah, there are many streams and deviations and abbreviations. Certainly, the focus should remain the policy and action of the Nazi extermination policy and practices. But this was not the entire Shoah, nor can it be explained by National Socialism alone, nor should it be reduced to Anti-Semitism alone. The roots of Nazi ideology go far back into history, and there are relatives to this policy in other political systems, like Stalinism.

*

For a contemporary debate, it may be good to ask two questions:

  • How do we know what we know? (Gaston Bachelard)
  • What will the Shoah mean for the future, and how shall we deal with it?

Both questions aim at your and our common interest in the Holocaust. The first one refers to something that happened individually in our past, far, or recent. How do you, each one of you, know what we are talking about at this moment? Of course, all of you are educated persons, thus, we can start with the assumption that knowledge about the Holocaust is part of general education. Is it? For a long time after the war, the Holocaust was clad into national interests, it was not the Jews who had been tortured and killed, but they were Polish, Ukrainian, German Jews. Comparisons were strictly forbidden, e.g., drawing similarities between concentration camps of the Nazis and the Gulag. When it comes to the roots of the Shoah, there were anti-capitalist, antisemitic, racist, ethnophobia, or simply political arguments explaining the Shoah. And in many cases, these widespread collection of explanations, excuses, or accusations, is still in use, sometimes in strange coalitions. To learn about our knowledge about the Holocaust means that we will learn about our parents, family members, social and cultural environments, our teachers and textbooks – and we will suddenly learn about the complete silence, when the topic is being raised.

The next step answering the first question will be the distinction between scholarly expertise and laypersons everyday discourse. There is a lot of research in all varieties of Shoah appearances and facts, and it still is as controversial as in the beginning. You need not be an expert yourself if you gain insight from this research. But if you compare the movies “Night and Fog”[3] or the mini-series “Holocaust” (1978) with other movies[4], you will find rather many of these motives, either focussing on the victims or on the perpetrators, either broken through a subjective lens or trying to present an objective view. There are conferences, podcasts, blogs, and a host of documentary, docufiction, fiction and poetry; there is drama and fine art, there are installations, comics, and satire. Why has been there a “culture” of concern for the Shoah? Again, we can divide the agenda: there is a lot of culture of memory (Erinnerungskultur) and there is a culture of lessons learned. Both are often intertwined. The culture of memory is part of ethical obligation or commitment, often ordered top-down and frequently framed by politics. Lessons learned are lessons applicable to the present and the future. They are also within a political frame. Both cultures have a list of intervening variables, such as nationalism, cultural tradition, opposition towards imposed strategies of mourning or displacement. For both varieties, Aron R. Bodenheimer’[5]s statement is valid: “Only he/she who wants to forget will be able/allowed to remember”. Aron was a close friend of mine, and I may interpret this recommendation: to forget it is necessary to know what you may want to forget; before that, relying only on vague orders or dogmas, forgetting will be either careless or frivolous.

One other aspect among the answers to the first question is the problem of defining the victims of the Shoah, i.e., the Jews, either through a religious interpretation or within an ethnologic and anthropologic frame. The results might be stunningly different and produce more diversion and conflict. If the religious interpretation prevails, then the conflict between the Christians and the Jews, including inquisition, discrimination, downgrading in the eyes of the respective god etc., will come into the picture. The history of anti-Jewish resentment cannot be written without referring to the Christian anti-Judaism, which often has merged and is merging with anti-Semitism. (A similar, however incongruent) window can be opened about Islamic anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism). The enlightened anti-Semitism would be split into a vision of tolerance towards all religions, if they won’t subdue other denominations, and into an anti-religious secularism. Then, anti-Semitic resentments against Jews would be based more on a socio-economic prejudice or cultural “ethnopluralism”)[6]. The secular approach is more complex; religion is only one among other ingredients of socio-anthropological construct of ethnic entities (The Jews, The Hebrews etc.), and this is leading both to a modern, post-revolutionary secular distinction between religion and other qualities of a certain societal group (language, tradition, environment etc.) that play roles, and religion is more often playing the role of an ideological glue to stabilize the intra-societal relations). For both answers, one of the clues is a thorough analysis of anti-Semitism, and almost inevitably, the reference to Zionism and Israel.

This is, among other reasons, why I am normally never speaking of Jews, but of Jewish people, thus avoiding an ontology (Jews are…; or “Germans AND Jews”). My main book on this subject is “Antisemitism makes Jews” (Correct in German “Antisemitismus macht Juden” (2007). Much of this approach is also inherent to the recent book by Delphine Horvilleur, a French woman rabbi: (Horvilleur 2020) who has worked on an ethno-cultural difference between the unfinished Jewry and the urge for completeness in other ethnicities.

The second question may lead as to answers that are more relevant for our present and future; they are linked to the deconstruction of the first question. Now, we should have an idea how to deal with the Holocaust.

Today, and in the future, there will be many accounts to the Shoah, but will it be the central focus of any perception of Jewry, of history at large, of political ethics, of global justice, of universalist ideas…?

Before I say, “certainly not”, give me a moment.

In Germany, Antisemitism has never ceased to exist after the war. There were periods of relative calm, when anti-Jewish resentments were silenced because of political and juridical countermeasures. And there are periods, like today, when antisemitic discourse and action are showing their faces. This is not a phenomenon restricted to a few social and cultural groups. The German army and police have their right-wing extremism as well as political parties, prominent clusters, – and an invisible layer through all classes and segments of the society. Estimates say that some 25 – 30% of Germans are anti-Semitic, that is about the percentage the neo-Nazi party AfD holds in some parts of the country, but generally, the anti-Semitic segments are not congruent with clusters that belong only to the political right. I am not going to analyse these facts now, but I shall point at another aspect: whenever an anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli slogan or action appears, the Holocaust is likely to be cited immediately. With or without a direct connection, and very often without a rational explanation of the link. When this happens, opposition or even criticism in the context are considered either politically incorrect or a confirmation of the suspicion that the Shoah is not valued adequately. This might be the case, but as an attitude, it is exactly this kind of superficial judgment and rhetoric that makes it rather difficult to seriously argue against both: anti-Semitism and the denial of the Holocaust.

And there are many young persons, not only “Germans”, but also persons with a migration background, with a different religious or political background, with a different economic framing…and their convictions and prejudice must come from somewhere: from their families, their friends, their religious embedding, and their cultural background, – and their opposition to the system, based on exactly these prejudices and ideologies. Of course, this is not typical German. In the US, look at the evangelicals or the followers of Trump and the racist bottom of society; in many European countries, anti-Semitism is still penetrating the tiniest pores of society, BUT the Shoah is seldom the reference point of their anti-Jewish resentment. I said ‘seldom’. (If they would refer to the Holocaust, the involvement of their country, their nation etc. might become obvious; for them, it is better to leave these facts in the subtexts, and derive their anti-Semitism from other, more historical or religious sources). Or, the Shoah is deliberately compared to other atrocities, from civil wars to dictatorships to legal orders referring to the Corona pandemic.

Antisemitism has become part of the identity for many persons. The present debates have created a dilemma: if there is only one identity to be aimed at, then what will it be, in competition with other values? Anti-colonial, gender-related, religion-related, colour-of-skin-related, political conviction etc. identities compete, quite clearly, and as long as there are not several identities with one person or one group as a legitimate construct, there will be conflict and exclusion.

If this true, then the Shoah will be one particle or element of a complex Jewish identity, which consists of many identities. Very often, non-Jews ascribe only one identity to Jewish persons, and then, conflicts are unavoidable, if this ascription is based mainly on the Holocaust. Today’s Jews would then be the survivors of the survivors, and what happened before, beside and after the Shoah is reduced. Being survivors also means in the eyes of the non-Jewish majority that they should behave better and more ethical and more sociable than the indigenous environment. They should be, in the subtext, grateful that they living as the survivors. For many Jewish societies whose ancestors have never been in contact with the events of the Shoah, this is a strange situation vis-à-vis their experience and their traditions and narratives. Because then, they must adopt a central element of identity which is not originally theirs.

The paradox in my argument is that it has less to do with the intra-Jewish discourse than with the discourses of the society around.

The solution, you may call it liberation, may be not so difficult. On the one hand, you help fighting antisemitism, this will require political commitment, cultural pluralism, and a farewell to all kinds of superior anthropology. On the other hand, it needs an education for the coming generation, where the Shoah is one element in a multitude of elements in a Jewish history. History means also social, cultural, economic context, and not just formulated by an elite for an elite.

The last point is important. May I give you an example from my research. There are numerous good books and features based on the investigation of the Jewry in the city of Berlin. Most of them concentrate on immigrated people from the East; they were concentrated in a relatively small section of the city. Research on another segment of the Jewish people in Berlin has been relatively slim, and some traditions, not based on recent immigration, i.e., the last 120 years, is less structured and productive[7].

*

This is, where we can reach another generation, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Based on the principle of equality, I can imagine how interested Jews would be in the history of Muslim in Germany and vice versa. And of course, the same is true for Christians, and apart from religion, for persons of any kind of religion, or secular persons. This idea does not simply aim at an educational reform. It should break up the national and cultural self-narrowing by the narratives of identity by origin.

The Shoah has never been the origin of Jewish generations after its ending. Even looking at 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, the survivors have not been the survivors of the deluge, coming from Noah’s boat and building a new people. The disaster of the Holocaust has been a global one, and its companions have never relativized the Shoah. But, please remember that you can, you must compare. In order to being able to do so, you must know something about the Shoah, and not only from those who instrumentalize it. This is not easy; it is hard work, and it never ends. If you will, Jewry begins with the transition from the Hebrews…if you will, after the separation from the Christians in the 3rd century…if you will in the Middle Ages…start discussing the right moment. If you really think that Jewry restarts with the Shoah, then you may ask which traditional laws and dogmas, Halacha and others, would be still intact. The Shoah has demonstrated that the answer to the question Who is a Jew? cannot be given, if we let it prevail as if nothing had happened. But for that it is necessary to know what the Jewish reality in the centuries before the Holocaust has been. My answer is: Jewish.

References:

These are numerous or no books directly related to the Shoah. They deal with a less pretentious approach. If you want more and more detailed Holocaust references, please contact me: In my blog http://www.michaeldaxner.commichaeldaxner.com, there are occasional entries under “Jüdischer Einspruch”, or Jewish Intervention.

Daxner, M. (2007). Der Antisemitismus macht Juden. Hamburg, Merus.

Fölling, W. (1995). Zwischen deutscher und Jüdischer Identität. Opladen, Leske+Budrich.

Geisel, E., Ed. (1981). Im Scheunenviertel. Berlin, Severin und Siedler.

Horvilleur, D. (2020). Überlegungen zur Frage des Antisemitismus. Berlin, Hanser.

Knott, M.-L., Ed. (2000). Hannah Arendt: Vor Antisemitismus ist man nur noch auf dem Monde sicher. München, Piper.

Levi, P. (1986). Die Untergegangenen und die Geretteten. München, Hanser.

Sarid, Y. (2019). Monster. Zürich, Kein&Aber.

Winger, A. (2020). Unorthodox. (A film):

Busemann, H., M. Daxner and W. Fölling (1992). Insel der Geborgenheit: die Private Waldschule Kaliski, Berlin 1932 bis 1939. Stuttgart ; Weimar, Metzler.

Horvilleur, D. (2020). Überlegungen zur Frage des Antisemitismus. Berlin, Hanser.

This presentation was given in the context of a seminar: A very diverse and interested group of educators from Poland, Greece, and Germany joined the training „Entangled History as a perspective for non-formal education“. In discussions, they quickly realised how little they knew about the history, histography, and perspective of the respective countries. This resulted in long and intense conversations.

The first part of the training was held in the IYMC Krzyżowa, the second in the IYMC Oświęcim. What the participants will particularly remember is the visit to the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some of them said they would never forget it. The majority of the participants is active in civic and social fields and some of them are planning their own projects and visits to the memorial site with young people. For this purpose, trainers presented and applied relevant methods.

The training course was co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union and Rotary International.

Michael Daxner

michaeldaxner@yahoo.com

+49-01741805837


[1] This essay was read during an online session of the seminar and later amended for a readable version. Thanks to Tim Kucharzewski and Silvia Nicola for valuable support.

[2] Cf. Sarid, Y. (2019). Monster. Zürich, Kein&Aber.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_and_Fog_(1956_film)

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Holocaust_films –  incomplete list: that is also important, what is NOT included in such lists.

[5] Cf. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aron_Ronald_Bodenheimer . Aron was a close friend and we worked together on many such themes as the Shoah. His view was often controversial, e.g., against the “official” philosemitic answers to the Shoah or a merely religious interpretation of the fate of the Jews.

[6] The term looks nice, but it means that each ethnicity should have their rights only in their domain or country…(Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnopluralism#References); cf. also: Frank Teichmann: Der Ethnopluralismus, oder wohin die völkische Vielfalt führt. In: Henning Eichberg: Nationalrevolutionäre Perspektiven in der Sportwissenschaft. Reihe: Europäische Hochschulschriften, 211. Peter Lang, Bern 1991, Kapitel B.4, S. 157–199.

[7] It is about a school in the Western parts of Berlin, Jewish, reform-oriented, focussed on escape from Germany: Busemann, H., M. Daxner and W. Fölling (1992). Insel der Geborgenheit: die Private Waldschule Kaliski, Berlin 1932 bis 1939. Stuttgart ; Weimar, Metzler.

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