Read an Excerpt
Will the World Ever Learn?:
Introduction to the 2011 Edition
“One generation after” the cruelest of tragedies to befell the Jewish people, one often wonders: Has everything been said about its so-called legacy? Has its dark truth been properly revealed? Have the right words been used? Have these words truly reached the hearts and minds of enough people around the world so as to shield us from further religious or ethnic fanaticism, racial hatred, and state-organized violence? Have our memories changed our collective destiny?
These questions confronted me a few years ago when I was invited to address the General Assembly of the United Nations; they remain valid today. Here is what I said then:
The man who stands before you this morning feels deeply privileged. A teacher and writer, he speaks and writes as a witness to a crime committed in the heart of European Christendom and civilization by a brutal dictatorial regime—a crime of unprecedented cruelty in which all segments of government participated.
When speaking about that era of darkness, the witness encounters difficulties. His words become obstacles rather than vehicles; he writes not with words but against words. For there are no words to describe what the victims felt when death was the norm and life a miracle. Still, whether you know it or not, his memory is part of yours.
I speak as a son of an ancient people, the only people of antiquity to have survived antiquity, the Jewish people, which throughout much of its history, has endured exile and oppression yet has never given up hope of redemption.
As a young adolescent, he saw what no human being should have to see: the triumph of political fanaticism and ideological hatred of those who were different. He saw multitudes of human beings humiliated, isolated, tormented, tortured, and murdered. They were overwhelmingly Jews, but there were others. And those who committed these crimes were not vulgar underworld thugs, but men with high government, academic, industrial, and medical positions in Germany. In recent years, that nation has become a true democracy. But the question remains open: In those dark years, what motivated so many brilliant and committed public servants to invent such horrors? By its scope and magnitude, by its sheer weight of numbers, by the impact of so much humiliation and pain, in spite of being the most documented tragedy in the annals of history, Ausch-witz still defies language and understanding.
Let me evoke those times:
Babies used as target practice by SS men . . . Adolescents condemned never to grow old . . . Parents watching their children thrown into burning pits . . . Immense solitude engulfing an entire people . . . Infinite despair haunting our days and our dreams sixty years later . . .
When did what we so poorly call the holocaust begin? In 1938, during Kristallnacht? In 1939, perhaps, when a German ship, the St. Louis, with more than a thousand German Jewish refugees aboard, was turned back from America’s shores? Or was it when the first massacres occurred in Babi Yar?
We still ask, What was Auschwitz: an end or a beginning, an apocalyptic consequence of centuries-old bigotry and hatred, or the final convulsion of demonic forces in human nature?
A creation parallel to God’s—a world with its own antinomian United Nations of people of different nationalities, traditions, cultures, socioeconomic spheres, philosophical disciplines, speaking many languages, clinging to a variety of faiths and memories. They were grown-ups or young, but inside that world there were no children and no grandparents; they had already perished.
As I have said many times: Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims; for the first time in recorded history to be became a crime. Their birth became their death sentence. Correction: Jewish children were condemned to die even before they were born. What the enemy sought was to put an end to Jewish history; what he wanted was a new world, implacably, irrevocably devoid of Jews. Hence Auschwitz, Ponary, Treblinka, Bel¡zec, Chelmno, and Sobibór: dark factories of death erected for the Final Solution. Killers came there to kill and victims to die.
That was Auschwitz, an executioner’s ideal of a kingdom of absolute evil and malediction, with its princes and beggars, philosophers and theologians, politicians and artists; a place where to lose a piece of bread meant moving a step closer to death, and a smile from a friend, another day of promise.
At the time, the witness tried to understand; he still does not: How was such calculated evil, such bottomless and pointless cruelty possible? Had Creation gone mad? Had God covered his face? A religious person cannot conceive of Auschwitz either with or without God. But what about man? How could intelligent, educated, or simple law-abiding citizens fire machine guns at hundreds of children and their parents, and in the evening enjoy a cadence by Schiller, a partita by Bach?
Turning point or watershed, that catastrophe which has traumatized History has forever changed man’s perception of his or her responsibility toward fellow human beings. The sad, terrible fact is that it could have been prevented. Had the Western nations intervened when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia and Austria; had America accepted more Jewish refugees from Europe; had Britain allowed more Jews to return to their ancestral land; had the Allies bombed the railways leading to Birkenau at the time when ten thousand Hungarian Jews—men, women, and infants—were assassinated day after day, our tragedy might have been avoided, its scope surely diminished.
This shameful indifference we must remember, just as we must remember to thank the few heroic individuals who, like Raoul Wallenberg, risked their lives to save Jews. We shall also always remember the armies that liberated Europe and the soldiers that liberated the death camps: the Americans in Buchenwald, the Russians in Auschwitz, and the British in Belsen. But for many victims they all came too late. That we must also remember.
When the American Third Army liberated Buchenwald, there was no joy in our hearts: only pain. We did not sing, we did not celebrate. We had just enough strength to recite the Kaddish.
And now, sixty years later, the entire world listens to the words of the witness. Like Jeremiah and Job, we could have cried and “cursed be the days dominated by injustice and violence.” We could have chosen vengeance. We did not. We could have chosen hate. We did not. Hatred is degrading, and vengeance demeaning. They are diseases. Their history is dominated by death.
The Jewish witness speaks of his people’s suffering as a warning. He sounds the alarm so as to prevent these things from being done to others. Had the world listened to our testimonies, the tragedies of Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur might have been avoided.
Oh yes, the witness knows that for the dead it is too late; for them, abandoned by God and betrayed by humanity, victory came much too late. But it is not too late for today’s children, ours and yours. It is for their sake alone that we bear witness. It is for their sake that we are duty-bound to denounce anti-Semitism, bigotry, racism, and religious or ethnic hatred. Those who today preach and practice the cult of death, using suicide terrorism, the scourge of this new century, must be condemned for crimes against humanity. Suffering confers no privileges; it is what one does with suffering that matters. Yes, the past is in the present, but the future is still in our hands.
Remember: Those who survived Auschwitz advocate hope, not despair; generosity, not rancor or bitterness; gratitude, not violence. We must be engaged; we must reject indifference as an option. Indifference always helps the aggressor, never his victims. And what is memory if not a noble and necessary response to and against indifference?
But . . . will the world ever learn?
* From remarks made by the author at the Twenty-seventh Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly, on January 24, 2005, in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.