Mar 11 2010

The Holocaust and Hard Choices

Published by at 12:23 am under Rediscovering Israel

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown awarded medals this week to citizens who chose to help save the lives of those who would otherwise have been destroyed in the Holocaust. The award is reportedly etched with the words, "In the Service of Humanity". Meanwhile, Bulgaria also paid tribute to those who fought against the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps. In contrast, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued to cast doubt on the very historical fact of the Holocaust, following up by noting of the world’s only Jewish state that "with Allah’s help, this regime will be annihilated."  

These developments and a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem remind us that the Holocaust has always been about choices, from then until the present day.

When the events in question were actually happening, these choices were made by the victims, and perpetrators; resistors and collaborators; soldiers and civilians; willing executioners and "righteous gentiles".

For instance, imagine you are a German as Hitler ascends to power. Do you go along with a boycott of your Jewish neighbors’ businesses? The first time the Nazis tried this, they were largely rejected. It took five years of constant incitement, separation and demonization of Jews as sub-humans to get the masses in Germany to go along with the boycott schemes — and when it did happen, individual Germans made that choice with awful enthusiasm.

In the lead-up to the German blitzkrieg, politicians and bureaucrats in countries around the world who could see what was happening were faced with a choice: take in the refugees or turn them back. The official Australian response? "We don’t have a Jewish problem and we dont intend to import one." In Canada, how many was too many to take in? "None is too many."

As the war began and conditions worsened, Holocaust victims faced more tough choices. In the ghetto, the Germans are demanding that Jewish leaders in the ghetto hand over thousands of Jews each month, who will be shipped off by train to… well, no one really knows for sure.

It could be a better place. It might be much worse. Do you send the strongest ones, who might be able to survive the ordeal of wherever they are going? Or do you send the sick and starving? How do you preserve those who have not yet succumbed to the starvation rations and crippling lack of hygiene in the overcrowded hell-hole?

The choices never got easier. A prisoner in a concentration camp wakes up during the night to find his hat is missing. At roll call in a few hours, he must wear his hat or face a bullet to the brain. Does he lie awake, counting the hours, awaiting his fate? Or does he surreptitiously creep down the line of bunks hoping to filch a hat from his neighbor, thereby consigning that one to certain death?

In the nations conquered by the Nazis, the local population faces the choice of handing over their Jewish neighbors to the Germans or refusing to cooperate. Particularly in the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe, the choice often seems to have been more about whether to hand over the Jews with a smile and a handshake or enthusiastically carry out the rape, brutalization and murder themselves while German soldiers looked on.

In other countries, different choices were made. In Bulgaria, Anti-Semitic laws modeled on the Nuremberg laws came into effect with the approval of local MPs. Intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews was outlawed. Jewish property was confiscated. Adult men were drafted into forced labor. Still, enough Bulgarians chose to not work with the Nazis that 50,000 Jews were saved from deportation to the camps.

Denmark was a better example. Of eight thousand Jews in that country, all but 51 survived the Holocaust, thanks to a united population that chose to hide their Jewish friends and neighbors from the Gestapo.

These kinds of choices are still very relevant today. The phrase, "Never again", can be taken to mean that we are united in opposing the genocide of any group or nation in a new Holocaust (though Darfurians rightly wonder at why the rest of the world chose not to live up to that creed). But for Jews, it has other meanings as well: never again will they put their security in the hands of those who could and often did make the choice to abandon them in their time of need. Even among those who spilled horrendous blood and treasure to defeat the Nazis, the Israelis wonder why these allies did not, for instance, bomb Auschwitz and destroy a camp where a few hundred prison workers were able to apply industrial methods to murder thousands of people per day.

Hard choices remain with the descendants of those Holocaust survivors who joined their Jewish brethren already living in the holy land and formed the UN-mandated Jewish state. Sanctions already in place on Iran and further sanctions in the works don’t seem to be achieving their aim of curtailing what most analysts believe to be a bloody-minded effort to build a bomb. More than those outside Israel may realize, it seems that most Israelis do see an Iranian bomb as an existential threat.

Will Israelis feel forced to make a choice to prevent a second Holocaust with a preemptive strike on Iran? As one Canadian immigrant to Israeli put it to me yesterday, "Israelis are furious with the international community and formal allies, who seem to be willing to let Israel take care of this. It’s as though they feel an Iranian bomb isn’t a threat to anyone but Israel. They’ve got this blind spot when it comes to their own interests. But if, hypothetically, any Israeli Prime Minister — Livni, Netanyahu, whoever — had actionable intelligence that the Iranians were literally on the verge of getting a nuclear weapon, I think there’s no doubt they would choose to go in. They would do whatever is necessary."

Hard choices ahead.

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