A Memory and its Lessons

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Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is an annual opportunity for Jews the world over to contemplate the incomprehensible act perpetrated by the Nazis, remember loved ones lost, join together in support of survivors, and remind ourselves of our responsibility to learn and teach the lessons of the Holocaust. In this op-ed, originally published in Hebrew in the Globes financial daily on May 2, 2011, IDI Former President and Founder Dr. Arye Carmon recalls attending the trial of Adolf Eichmann as a teenager in Jerusalem and reflects on the meaning of the Holocaust for Israelis in 2011. 

One day in May 1960, when I was in 11th grade, my parents and I were about to leave our Jerusalem apartment for a unique experience: the filming of a scene for the movie Exodus, in which masses would reenact the Declaration of the State of Israel. The experience that we anticipated—being filmed alongside Paul Newman in his role as Ari Ben Canaan—was suddenly overshadowed, as we stood in the doorway, ready to go, and heard a special radio announcement from Prime Minister David Ben Gurion: "Adolf Eichmann has been brought to Israel and will be tried before a court of law of the Jewish state."

The months that followed changed my life. Glued to the radio, I followed the chilling testimonies hour after hour. I was fortunate once to gain entry to Beit Ha'am, where the trial was taking place. I remember sitting in the balcony, looking at the glass booth and the man in it, and writing notes to myself in a small notebook. With time, those notes became pages, then articles, and eventually an educational program on "Teaching the Holocaust as an Education toward Values." "That man in the glass booth is a murderer?" I wrote at the time. "He looks like a postal clerk selling stamps. No one would ever give him a second glance."

At the time, the words of Ka-Tzetnik, the famous writer and survivor who had testified at the opening of the trial, were very much on the public's mind: "Auschwitz was another planet," he had said. I could not reconcile the image of the postal clerk in the glass box with the image of the beast from "another planet" that I had internalized: the image of the postal clerk meant that Auschwitz took place on this planet and Eichmann was a man, just like you and me. This recognition that Auschwitz, as a symbol of the Nazi German murder machine, lies at the bottom of a human continuum that descends into evil, is a necessary condition for our ability and obligation to judge the unprecedented act of murder that claimed our people as its victim.

Auschwitz, the very essence of murder, is the lowest rung on the ladder of human evil. Just above it is genocide, like the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey or the genocides in Darfur or Cambodia. The point of origin of such acts–the threshold that leads to the descent into the abyss—is the human tendency to generalize and stereotype ("all the ultra-Orthodox/Arabs/blacks are..."). Its continuation is demonization, discrimination, racism, and verbal abuse, leading to physical violence as well.

For many years we were comfortable with the denial that stems from the sharp distinction that we created between "us"—Jews—and "them"—Nazis. How gruesomely ironic that as we distanced ourselves from the Nazis, we tore ourselves, Israelis, away from the Diaspora victims—again as "us" and "them." For years we wondered "how did they go like sheep to the slaughter?" Unintentionally, we created a macabre symmetry between the perpetrator and the victim.

The scope of the Holocaust is immeasurable, and if it has any kind of measure, it is beyond the capacity of human comprehension. And here lies the greatest enemy of memory and commemoration. The combination of our estrangement from the scope of the crime against humanity perpetrated by the murderous Nazis and our alienation from the victims is a recipe for oblivion. Phrases such as "from Holocaust to rebirth," or "never again," which we have used repeatedly to express the power of the "New Jews," similarly do not help.

What is obvious and should not be taken for granted—the necessity to rely on our physical might to ensure our sovereign existence, which is beyond reproach—has become an excuse to blur the moral lessons that are binding upon us as human beings, Jews, and Zionists. Our collective memory has been built on the phrases cited above. Unfortunately, this memory did not experience the stage of orphanhood, the stage of intense loss that is so crucial in the process of mourning; we never had the opportunity to evaluate and internalize the scope of loss of the cradle of the rich and diversified Jewish culture that was extinguished.

It is possible, for example, that the time has come to incorporate a glimpse of the cultural treasures that were wiped out in the Holocaust into the "March of the Living," which currently begins and ends in the death camps.

The stage of prosecuting Eichmann and bringing him to justice ended 50 years ago. The fact of "Eichmann in Jerusalem" is a landmark with exceptional and as yet unrealized meaning in Israeli history. It allowed Holocaust survivors to roll up their sleeves and reveal the numbers burned into their arms, which they had concealed during the 1950s. Moreover, it revealed the challenge facing the Israelis: to learn and teach the ethical and human lessons to ourselves and to the whole world. 

Dr. Arye Carmon is the Former President and Founder of the Israel Democracy Institute.

This article was originally published in Hebrew in the financial daily Globes on May 2, 2011, and has been translated and reprinted with permission.