On the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

As a white British Christian Male, born in the 1990s, I am aware that I must be careful when discussing the Holocaust and its aftermath. I have no share in the trauma, so can never understand fully the impact it had on the Jewish community, and especially not on those whose parents or grandparents saw the full extent of the horror of the “Final Solution”. What follows is said with respect and caution, and I welcome comment and correction. My thanks to Lucy Kessler and her family for comments on an early draft. These thoughts are my own, and do not represent the views of Coventry Cathedral.

Over the last six months, living in Coventry, and working in and around the Cathedral, I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about how to be part of a reconciled and reconciling people. As it was recently put by one of the senior Cathedral Clergy (I want to say it was the Dean, John Witcombe, but I can’t be sure), reconciliation is not about forgiving and forgetting, but rather forgiving and remembering. The Ruined Medieval Cathedral which stands alongside the New Cathedral is a visible reminder of the fact that, though we must move on from trauma, that does not mean that we need to forget the past. The ruins instead stand as a visible symbol of the fact that the cathedral community have come to terms with their past. They recognise the significance of the Cathedral’s destruction, within the context of European total war, but have allowed this to shape a narrative of hope.

In the light of what I am continuing to learn at Coventry, it was with great interest that I sat down at lunch time on the 27th of January with a group of some 20 people, to watch and discuss the short documentary, “When Speech Forms a Bridge”. This documentary focused on a conference of second and third generation Jewish Holocaust survivors (that is, the children and grandchildren of those who lived through the trauma of the Ghettos, deportation, and death camps, and the broader policy of ethnic cleansing undertaken under the Nazi regime). Of course, it must not be forgotten that some five million non-Jews also perished in the atrocities of the Holocaust, but this was not the focus of the conference, or subsequently, our discussion. Our group was particularly interested in the contrast seen between the generations in how they lived with the memory of such massive trauma. The relationships of the second generation to their parents were universally strained, as the parents were unable to openly talk about what had happened with their children. This silence appeared to draw the second generation backwards, making them share in the trauma on a personal level. Thus, their understandings of the Holocaust were personal, because, through the silence of the first generation, they too had come to bear the scars of the death camps.

The third generation, however, did not share the same personal the trauma. In part, that appears to have stemmed from a greater openness of the first generation of survivors to their grandchildren, meaning that a fuller understanding of what happened appeared to skip a generation. These grandchildren, meanwhile, had grown up at one remove from the events of the 1930s and 1940s. The trauma was not personal for them in the way it was for their parents’. Where the second generation looked backwards, the third looked forwards. Likewise, it was the third generation which appeared to be able to treat the Holocaust as something which, while vital to remember, was not a personal story. It was the account of people to whom they were related, not their story.

This split is especially interesting in the light of the on-going conflict in Israel/Palestine. The  roots of this problem date back at least as far as the First World War (like so many of the conflicts of the 20th century), and the broken promises made by the allies to both Jewish and Arab groups, which left a situation where neither side would be satisfied. In the end, a British mandate was established, to last until 1948. However, the creation of the state of Israel was made a far more pressing matter to the international community in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Thus, a Plan of Partition with Economic Union (UN resolution 181 [ii]) was proposed in 1947, but was not accepted by Arab nationalists, leading to initially internal conflict, and, after the expiry of the British Mandate, to full scale war between Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq and the newly established state of Israel. Despite the  apparent disparity between the two sides, Israel emerged from the 1948 war with boarders set beyond those envisaged in the 1947 resolution.

What seem, to me and many other external observers, baffling, is the actions of the State of Israel after 1948. Of the Palestinian refugees forced out of their homes by the conflict, most have not been allowed to return, though the same can be said of Jewish refugees from the Arab states involved. More problematically, in 1967, in response to cross border attacks by Arab militants, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip.[1] Since then, occupation has been maintained, despite this being declared illegal by the UN. Thus, a state founded in the aftermath of one of the worst acts of systematic oppression and dehumanisation in human history, and which sought to provide a safe homeland for those survivors of the holocaust, has since been involved in the removal of another population from parts of their homeland, and in their systematic oppression.

Of course, the scale of the crisis in Israel/Palestine and the impact on the normal life of the average Palestinian, is not comparable with the horror of the Holocaust, but to an external observer, it still seems counter-intuitive that after the horrors faced by Jews in Europe; Israel would in turn treat Palestinians in what appears to be a similarly oppressive way. The separation wall, which has come to be a symbol of oppression to those living in the Palestinian territories and is therefore very hard to ignore, appears at first sight to have unsettling parallels to the early horrors of Ghettoisation.[2] It is hard to understand why a group which had suffered as much as the Jewish population which flocked to Israel could in turn inflict even a fraction of that on anyone else. The great value, therefore, of the film was that it helped me, and those watching with me, understand something of the  motivation behind this treatment of Palestinians. The early state of Israel was unavoidably coloured by the experiences of Jewish refugees who flocked to the new state from post-war Europe – those for whom the trauma of the Holocaust was deeply personal. It was they who had been forced out of their homes and jobs, who had been demonised in the streets, who had lost family and friends in the Gas Chambers. Thus it becomes far easier, as an outside observer, to understandable that Israel would go to extreme lengths for the sake of greater personal security. In the wake of such trauma one can understand the desire for lasting security. Even the desire to keep a solid wall between yourself and external threats.

What gives me hope is that the third generation (or at least, that part of the third generation who was present at the conference) seems to have a different world view that that held by their parents and grandparents. If the Holocaust is, for the third generation, not a personal trauma, then they can see it as something horrible, and as the kind of thing which must not be repeated. With the third generation, it stops being personal and becomes a more universal horror; something which all humans can share in remembering, living with and learning from. So, potentially, a younger generation might be able to see past the need for defence of a Jewish homeland, to the need for peace and reconciliation between all people, so that such horrors may never again dishonour the world.

My only fear is that nationalistic ideologies may come to take the place of personal trauma within the Israel itself. I do not know where those involved in the conference came from – whether a mix of Israeli Jews and those from other countries or whether they were mainly those still resident in Europe. Thus, I cannot suggest what views may be present within any given group. All I can do is hope that while remembering, collective forgiveness can become a real possibility.

[1]

This is of course a severe simplification of the straight history of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. I hope it remains free of bias, but apologise to anyone who feels it does not do justice to any of the numerous perspectives on the conflict.

[2]

I am told that this comparison is often made by holocaust deniers, which is frankly horrendous, and is in no way my intention. My aim is simply to show that, to an outsider, it is hard to understand why Israel acts as it does. It is only by putting oneself in the shoes of someone who has suffered such oppression first-hand, that the drive for safety and security becomes understandable.