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The Holocaust is not a day for thinking about Israel and the Palestinians – its horror transcends all issues

The Shoah is hinted at in inhumanity all around us

By on Monday, 28 January 2013

Germany Holocaust

It was rather sad to see that for some people Holocaust Memorial Day was all about political point scoring. Tim Stanley has dealt with this matter with his usual insight, and you can read what he has to say here. Again, there was the case of the Lib Dem MP, whose words, and their timing in particular, are most unfortunate.

The Memorial Day fell yesterday, which is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. That one place name still has a remarkable resonance. I imagine everyone has heard of Auschwitz, and if they claim not to have done so, I would very much like to know why that were the case.

The concept of memory is an extremely important one for all human beings. According to my online concordance provided on the Vatican’s website,  the word ‘remember’ occurs 169 times in the Bible; ‘remembered’, 50 times; ‘remembering’, 8 times; ‘remembers’, 13 times, and ‘remembrance’, 18 times. The word ‘memorial’ occurs 30 times, and ‘memory’ 39 times; ‘memories’ is used twice and ‘memorials’ thrice.

Time and again the people of the Old Testament are told to remember what God did for them in liberating them from Egypt; and we, the people of the New Testament, are told to carry out the memorial of Christ our Saviour. So, you get the picture: Holocaust Memorial Day is something that should come as second nature to us, as the act of rememberance is hardwired into our religious DNA.

And not only our religious DNA; it is part of human nature. Non-religious people also keep anniversaries and attend memorials.

But why remember? One remembers because it is dangerous to forget. To forget may be to risk the making the same mistakes once more and allowing the same catastrophe to happen again. But there is more to it than just that, important as that is. To remember the Holocaust is an act that helps constitute our identity. We did not live through it, most of us; if we had lived at that time, we might have been bystanders, or even perpetrators; but we who live now live in its shadow, and its shadow makes us who we are – or rather should do. We need to remember so that we can become the people we ought to be: the people who live in a post-Auschwitz world. Because the fact of Auschwitz changes everything.

The horror of Auschwitz establishes beyond any doubt, to my mind, that humankind is flawed. It blows to pieces the myth of the Noble Savage told us by Rousseau: human beings left to their own devices, contrary to what he said, will commit the most awful atrocities. Humanity is not intrinsically noble; it is not society that has deformed us. We are deformed in our very nature. The Holocaust illustrates that civilisation is only skin deep; it lays humanity bare, exposing humanity’s lack of humanity.

So, to return to my original point, Holocaust Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for the victims, of course, but not really a day for thinking about Israel and the Palestinians, for it transcends all that. Rather it is a day for contemplating the radical insufficiency of human nature. This is how we are, and this is the horror to which we can sink. And the Holocaust, though unique in scale and in its depravity, is hinted at in inhuman behaviour all around us today: in the cruelty of human being to human being, in the ruthless lack of pity, in the hardening of the human heart to love and compassion.

The remembering the Old Testament asks us to do, is the remembering of God’s goodness to us. On Holocaust Memorial Day we need to remember our past wickedness to each other, and what we are capable of, still.

But after you have looked at human depravity, where will you next look? Will you shrug and move on? Will you say that there is no help for it? Will you claim that such depravity is not typical, or the product of certain historical circumstances alone? Or will you, having looked at what human beings are capable of, then look towards God, with a fervent prayer that he will not leave us in our sins?

  • David Lindsay

    I trust that everyone had a Happy Holocaust Day. If you find the title of this post offensive,
    then so you should. But what else is one supposed to say? The whole thing is as
    ridiculous as it is revolting. For one thing, why is it on 27th January, the day
    Auschwitz exchanged mass-murdering Nazi tyranny for mass-murdering Soviet
    tyranny? Why not 15th April, the day Belsen really was
    liberated, and that by the British? In some years, that would even coincide
    usefully with Easter.

    Is the Conservative Whip going to be withdrawn
    from the hundreds of MPs who are in fact members of a party which has moved
    from coalition to impending merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s gutter mob, and
    which is moving to coalition, doubtless leading to merger, with Naftali
    Bennett’s sewer mob? Exactly how many people would that leave in receipt of the
    Conservative Whip?

    David Ward’s main mistake has been the common one
    of assuming that the present State of Israel has much connection at all to the
    Holocaust. Not only is the population within the pre-1967 borders 20 per cent
    Arab and growing, but the majority of the rest is of Middle Eastern rather than
    European origin: dark-skinned, linguistically and culturally Arabic, and with
    little or (overwhelmingly) no connection to the victims of Hitler.

    How come, then, that the place is run by Avigdor
    Lieberman, who was born in what is now Moldova, who did not move to Israel
    until he was 20, and who continues to sport a Slavic surname; by a white man called
    Bennett; and by Benjamin Mileikowsky, who affects to be called Netanyahu, a
    name inscribed in Ancient Hebrew on a 2800-year-old signet ring which he
    displays in his office? Why does this overwhelmingly brown country in the
    Levant have an apparently irremovable white ruling class which is basically and
    ultimately European or European-American?

    Why, indeed?

  • awkwardcustomer

    Here is former Israeli Minister Shulamit Aloni explaining why we should never forget the Holocaust.

  • Mikethelionheart

    Why are you obsessed with Israelis’ skin colour?
    Why indeed?

  • Parasum

     “The Holocaust is not a day for thinking about Israel and the Palestinians – its horror transcends all issues”

    ## Even the Crucifixion ?  Lots of things are worse than the Shoah. In the language of sacrifice, a “holocaust” is a “whole burnt offering” – this is not a good description of the attempted genocide of the Jews, which is well described as a *calamity*;  which is what the Hebrew word *shoah* means. Some OT sacrifices were “whole burnt offerings” – to use the same word for the Final Solution of the Nazis as for some of the Levitical sacrifices invites confusion, and risks making a perfectly serviceable word unusable. 

    Horrible as the Shoah was, to treat it as The Worst Thing Ever Done is to give it a status it does not deserve. That non-Christians might think it to be The Worst Thing Ever Done is understandable; but Christians, whose faith is in a Crucified God-Man, should be made of sterner stuff. Newman was much more realistic: 

    “This, then, is the point I insist upon, in answer to the objection
    which you have today urged against me. The Church aims, not at making
    a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is
    in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of
    one single soul. She holds that, unless {240} she can, in her own way, do
    good to souls, it is no use her doing anything; she holds that it were
    better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail,
    and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in
    extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one
    soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single
    venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, though it harmed no one,
    or steal one poor farthing without excuse
    . She considers the action of
    this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in
    their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single
    wild bandit of Calabria, or whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a
    hundred lines of railroad through the length and breadth of Italy, or
    carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details, in every city of
    Sicily, except so far as these great national works tended to some
    spiritual good beyond them.”

    [The emphasised part of the passage is quoted in the Apologia]

    “She considers the action of
    this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in
    their respective spheres” – this is what is forgotten: the world & the Church have different standards of value; sometimes they co-incide, and this leads to the illusion that the two have the same standard. Few ideas could be more misleading or more pernicious.

  • Jonathan West

    Since you can’t tell whether a soul has been saved or not and so can claim that a soul has been saved more or less at will, this moral absolutist theology can be used to justify any atrocity, including something on the scale of the Holocaust.

  • JabbaPapa


  • Jonathan West

    No substantive response then? Or do you agree with me and treat the point as being so self-evidently true that it requires no comment?

  • JabbaPapa

    No, I mean that tediously repetitious commentary is sleep-inducing after you’ve seen it umpteen times already.

  • Benedict Carter

    Yes, the Shoah was a particularly foul crime ONLY (in my opinion) because committed by a supposedly Christian people with mechanical efficiency.

    One can point just a few hundred miles east to the 40 million dead of the GULAG and the 8-15 million dead of the deliberate starvation by the Marxists of the Ukrainian peasantry to find equivalent or worse crimes. But Russians aren’t efficient, and the camps of Vorkuta and Kolyma, some the equals of Auschwitz and Treblinka, have rotted into the permafrost. 

    In historical terms, Genhiz Khan and Tamerlane are Stalin’s and Hitler’s real equals, together with the Slave Trade and the abortion mills of our own time. 

  • Romulus

    Father: in the forty years since the US Supreme Court struck down effectively all American laws against abortion, well over fifty million lives have been lost to a procedure still widely viewed as sanctioned by the highest ideals of liberty and freedom. Daily, hourly, the toll of murders increases.  Yes, I know comparisons are odious.  Just thought it needed mentioning.

  • Parasum

     Point taken – but the criticism misses the point. That was something that had not occurred to me, so TY for mentioning it. Nonetheless, it does misses the point of what he was saying.

  • Parasum

     I would include Stalin, as a Georgian Orthodox Christian. And possibly Mao, after his baptism. Those other two managed to kill on a huge scale, but they lacked the mechanical means available in the 1940s. And, they had never been Christians. Where there is more light, there is – all things being equal – greater culpability. As Newman points out in an an early Catholic sermon. It is worse to be formerly Christian and do evil, than to be pre-Christian and do it – again, all things being equal. 

    Take away the technology, and the Nazi toll would presumably have been much lower – more on the scale of the bloodshed during the Thirty Years’ War.

    But there is no way the Shoah can compare to the Crucifixion – at most, it is a sort of analogue to it. And there may be others. But if we are going to give this particular slaughter a special theological status, why choose it in particular ? And why choose only the aspect of it that relates to the Jews ? STM that this is historicism – and is invalid for the reasons C. S. Lewis gives in his essay “Historicism”. What is not going to help is the sentimentalising  tendency that is so pervasive these days: however badly the Jews were treated, they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with using their sufferings  as a shield against criticism of their own cruelties.

  • Benedict Carter

    When the Palestinians can behave like normal people and not like a hysterical bunch of children your last point would carry more force  … . 

    But the Shoah HAS been given a theological significance by this Pope and his modern generation. Thus we are still affected to this day by the second World War.

    Be a good thing when its manifold influences are dead and gone.

  • Jonathan West

    You were interested enough to reply. Why?

  • Jonathan West

    Well, let’s go with my point and see where it leads. Unless you have some means by which you can tell whether you are doing any good or not, it seems to me that you are morally rather in the swamp. If the Apologia puts the saving of souls so much higher than any earthly good or evil act, and you cannot tell whether your action saves a soul or not, by what moral yardstick do you measure your actions?

  • 2_Armpits_4_Sister_Sarah

    “by a supposedly Christian people”

    That is NOT Muggerdige’s or Solzhenitsyn’s understanding of what went on in the Soviet Union. The latter became a persona non grata in the West because of his views on the subject …