Jews, Despite the Holocaust–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dear Niot,

You told Holocaust jokes at the table on Friday night. Ima and I grimaced and tried to segue into a discussion of the boots you are refusing to buy and your insistence on trudging through the Polish snow in running shoes. We acknowledged that telling jokes with your classmates would be a legitimate way of letting off pressure during your trip, although we didn’t think the ones you told us were particularly funny.

It was then that I knew how I was going to write this letter, a letter that your teacher asked us to deposit with him in a sealed envelope for you to read, in Hebrew, when you arrive in Poland. That’ll be at about the same time that The Jerusalem Report’s readers receive it in their mailboxes in English (and thanks for giving me advance permission to share it with them).
I reminded you that when your older sister and brother wanted to sign up for their class trips to Poland’s Nazi death camps, in what has become a routine part of the Holocaust curriculum for Israeli high school seniors, I objected. “Why?” you asked.

I explained that I don’t want my children to be Jews who are Jews because they are victims. I don’t want my children to be Israelis because the world hates them. Our history, tradition, and culture are rich and powerful and provide adequate reason to want to be a Jew and an Israeli even if Hitler had never been born and the swastika never had reigned.

When your sister said she was going to Poland anyway, I was reminded of a comedy skit I once saw at a club in New York. A man and a woman sat side by side on a small stage with big smiles on their faces. “Hi, we’re Jews,” the woman said. “And we’re dead.”

The man continued: “We’re here to tell you that 90 percent of dead people are Jews. So if you’re not nice to us when you’re alive…”

“…We’ll get you when you’re dead,” the woman concluded with a wicked giggle.

Not funny, you say? Well, it got a lot of knowing laughs from the mostly Jewish audience. Because a certain element in the education that nearly all young Jews get, no matter what their religious background and politics, is that being dead, at the hands of others, is the natural state of the Jewish people. Being alive is the exception. If you’re a Jew and you’re alive it’s because you are unusually lucky, or because the goyim around you are unusually indulgent, or because you’ve fought off your enemies. The bottom line is that everyone hates us.

So five years ago, when your sister came home with the forms to sign up for her school trip to the concentration camps, I worried that the message she’d get there would be “I’m a Jew because everyone hates me. I’m a Jew because most Jews are dead.”

What an awful reason to be a Jew.

Why not “I’m a Jew because the Jewish people produced the Bible, whose stories and poetry have become the common heritage of mankind?” Why not “I’m a Jew because of my people’s ethos of learning, argument, and dialogue, because of the Talmud, midrashim, and thinkers ranging from Maimonides to Spinoza to Soleveitchik?” Why not “I’m a Jew because my people preserved its language and culture through centuries of dispersion and reestablished and recreated them in the modern state of Israel?”

When she returned from her trip, I saw that my worst fears had not been realized. She came back with a more mature and sober view of Jewish history.

Still, her trip focused primarily only one of the two lessons that we, as Jews, must learn from the Holocaust. It’s an important lesson: that we, as Jews, must defend ourselves. That our people’s history shows us clearly that we cannot be secure without a state and army of our own.

But, face it, we didn’t need the Holocaust to tell us that, and you don’t need to go to Poland to learn it. Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion all came to that conclusion long before Hitler enlisted in the Kaiser’s army in World War I. Just yesterday, in a book I’m translating, I encountered this eye-witness description of a pogrom in Lvov: “The Jewish city is in flames and living people, or burnt bodies, are buried under the demolished houses.… More than a thousand victims were murdered brutally, women raped, men—bayonet wounds and bullet holes on their bodies, piles of burnt bodies, people were trapped in blazing houses and doomed to die in the flames.” That was in 1918, twenty years before the gas chamber was invented.

Growing up in Israel, as you have, in the age of suicide bombings, Qassam missiles, and virulent bellicose anti-Semitic rhetoric from Islamic extremists in Lebanon and Iran, you hardly need to go to Poland to learn that there are still people who want to murder Jews simply because they are Jews, and to learn that if we don’t defend ourselves, no one else will. In fact, that’s what you said at the Shabbat table on Friday night, in your own way—one that a Jewish boy couldn’t have dreamed of saying until just a few decades ago: “I’m a Jew,” you said proudly, “because we’re the strongest nation in the world and we don’t let anyone push us around.”

If that’s all there was to being a Jew, then we could save the cost of the trip to Poland. You could finish high school at the end of the year and follow your brother’s and your father’s footsteps into the army. After doing your part to defend your people, you’d have fulfilled your obligations as a Jew.

But there’s another big, important lesson that you’ve got to learn from the Holocaust.

You see, being a Jew doesn’t just mean fighting to defend Jewish lives. It doesn’t mean just keeping yourself alive. To be a Jew, you have to do something with Jewish your life, and that means understanding your life in the light of your people’s history and texts and stories. It means understanding yourself as a Jew, and as a human being.

At 17, you are into fighting more than into reading. Despite my nagging, you don’t read much beyond the sports pages—certainly not poetry. But there’s a poem I’d like you to think about when you are in Poland—one you’ve probably encountered in literature class or in the seminars that prepared you for your trip. It’s by Dan Pagis, who spent much of his boyhood in a concentration camp. After the war he came to Israel and became a famous Hebrew poet. It’s called “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Boxcar”:

Here in this transport
Am I Eve
With Abel my boy
If you see my elder son
Cain the human being
Tell him that I

Pagis packs reams of meaning into these six lines and 25 words, and we could talk about them for hours. But I want to point out just a couple things about the poem.

The first centers on line five. The original Hebrew is “Kayin ben-Adam,” which means both “Cain the human being” and “Cain the son of Adam.” Cain, we know from the biblical story (which we read in synagogue this past Shabbat), is the murderer, so Pagis seems to want us to identify Cain as the Nazi who has shoved his mother and brother into the transport and sent them off to the gas chambers. This Cain is a human being. Not a monster, not a supernatural angel of death or evil spirit, but a human being, the son and brother of his victims.

The second is that, in Hebrew, as you, though not my English readers, can hear, line three rhymes with line six—something I represent in my translation with an imperfect half-rhyme. From the literal meaning of the words, and the picture that the poem’s title creates in our mind, we see these lines as a scrawl on the boxcar’s inside wall, an message that Eve leaves unfinished because her strength fails, or because she dies.

But the rhyme, like the final chord of a song, provides closure—it makes it sound as if Eve’s message is not “I” followed by more words that we will never know, but simply “I.” If we read it this second way, the message that Eve wants the reader of her words to convey to her son and murderer Cain is “I.” That is, what you have sent to death is an “I,” a human being, just like yourself.

Here, in this handful of words, is the other message you need to come home with. The near-annihilation of the Jews was not accomplished by supernatural beings or by monsters in human guise. It was perpetrated by human beings—evil human beings raised on a tradition of anti-Semitism and militarism, but human beings nonetheless. Human beings like ourselves.

What Pagis is telling us in this poem is that every human being contains within him both the capacity to be a victim and the capacity to be a murderer. The fact that we have long been victims does not mean that we are immune to evil. On the contrary, now that we are, in your words, “the strongest nation in the world and we don’t let anyone push us around,” we need to take special care that we don’t let our power go to our heads. We need to remember that the non-Jews who live among us, and our enemies, too, are human beings.

Unfortunately, many Jews have become so enamored of physical strength and so sure of their nation’s destiny that they have turned off onto the dangerous road traveled by the self-righteous Slavic rioters of Lvov and their ilk, who were certain that in killing Jews they were doing God’s will and the will of history.

Niot, as you tread the steps of the slaughtered Jews of Europe and take in the enormity of the crime committed against our people, keep in mind that we are not Jews simply because most dead people are Jews. And we are not Jews simply because we can and will fight to make sure that we will never again allow ourselves to be victims of such a crime. To be Jews we must be alive. We are Jews because we are alive and because we have a religion, a culture, a language, and a history that affirms and gives life. A Jew should not settle for being merely a victim, nor merely a defender. Being Jewish means being a person who creates, not one who destroys or is destroyed. This is no joke: we’re Jews despite, not because, of the Holocaust.

With love,

Abba

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15 thoughts on “Jews, Despite the Holocaust–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

  1. As a parent and a person who accompanies students through the process that begins a year before the trip to Poland and ends months afterwards, I greatly appreciate your comments.
    I would add a few other mesages that I would hope that the trip includes is personal responsibility, heroism comes in many forms, difference ought to be celebrated not feared and that the point of Holocaust studies may be to raise questions as opposed to providing answers.
    I am sure that your voice is more influential to your children than any teachers’ will ever be.

  2. Beautifully said. I hope he forgives you for publishing something between you and him. And I think having to jump over to the J’lem Report is a bit of a bother.

  3. Haim: another masterpiece. I had come to the same conclusion within the last couple years after much internal debate regarding “why be Jewish?” Too bad, I spent the previous two decades, off-and-on, in the study of the Shoah. I’ll never forget those two gay guys saying Kaddish in tandem at a public Holocaust remembrance; I don’t know if they were the impetus to dig deeper but makes for an interesting story and something definitely clicked that day. I wish you had written this letter twenty years ago . . . it really spoke to me and I’m sure a lot of your other readers.

    Best regards,

    Lloyd

  4. David H. —
    Sorry about the jumps, but to keep this blog going we need to increase readership and to get paid for some of what we write. When we write for pay the newspapers and magazines generally won’t let us post the piece in full on the blog, so we lead in and jump to it. I hope you’ll accept and understand the minor inconvenience. As I noted in my previous post, “Son Sacrifice: Humility and the Significance of the Akeda,” we’ll also be doing this with material that will appear on Jewcy.com

  5. Haim, I appreciate the your touching words addressed to your son, on what I’m sure will be an emotional trip for him.

    There’s just one part that really, really bothers me:

    Growing up in Israel, as you have, in the age of suicide bombings, Qassam missiles, and virulent bellicose anti-Semitic rhetoric from Islamic extremists in Lebanon, Iran, and even closer to home, in Gaza, you hardly need to go to Poland to learn that there are still people who want to murder Jews simply because they are Jews, and to learn that if we don’t defend ourselves, no one else will.

    Here in Lebanon, I’ve never met anyone who wants to “murder Jews simply because they are Jews,” although there are people who would be glad to hear about Israelis being killed because they’re Israeli. Likewise, if Iranians were so bent on killing Jews qua Jews, why would there be tens of thousands of Iranian Jews represented by their own member of the Majlis? I can’t speak for Gaza, because I’ve never been there, but I have been to Ramallah and Qalqilya and Beit Sahour, and I can say that there’s little in common between the bloodthirsty anti-semites you’re conjuring and the people I’ve met in those places.

    The idea that Arabs and Muslims just want to kill Jews for being Jewish is only a slightly less inflated version of the mentality that would see all goyim as just waiting for an excuse to start the next round of pogroms. This is a blind spot in Israeli and American discourse on the Middle East, and from Beirut, Damascus or Ramallah, it’s hard to believe that this inability to see isn’t intentional.

  6. Sean — I appreciate having your perspective from Lebanon, but I think you dissimulate and impute things to me that I didn’t said. I did not say that Arabs and Muslims in general and as a whole want to kill Jews because they are Jews. I said that there are people in the world, among them Muslims, who want to do that. To pretend that there is no one in Lebanon (or Iran, or Ramallah) is to be either blind or willfully ignorant of certain sectors of the society you live in. You’re right–we should be careful in imputing evil to entire national or religious groups. But we should recognize evil when we see it.

  7. Haim: Thanks for the quick response. Although I’ve never met anyone here in Lebanon who wants to kill Jews because they’re Jews, that, of course, does not necessarily mean that there are no such people. There are, likewise, surely people in Oslo, Minneapolis, Beijing, Sydney, Bogota or Harare who have similarly irrational anti-Jewish feelings.

    But let’s be honest here, you’re not mentioning the odd hate-monger, you’re mentioning Lebanon, Iran and Gaza specifically, explicitly singling these places out. It’s hard to read the paragraph I cited above as anything but an implication that suicide bombings and Qassam rockets are anything but the result of anti-Semitism, pure and simple.

    And that’s what I take issue with. Rocket attacks on civilian targets in Sderot or Haifa and suicide bombings of cafes and buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are indefensible and disgusting. Explaining them away as attacks on Jews for being Jews, though, is the same as Americans believing that “they” hate “us” because we’re free. That is stripping a political action of its political context, giving a facile explanation of the act which strips Israelis and Americans of any responsibility for the political context within which it is occurring. (Incidentally, I am equally annoyed when I hear the flip side of the same rhetoric that would have Israel bomb Gaza or Beirut purely because Israelis hate and want to kill Arabs and Muslims.)

    I know that you’re much too thoughtful and nuanced to make blanket condemnations on entire peoples, which is why that one paragraph really bothered me.

    By the by, I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed your translation of Segev’s The Seventh Million, and I can’t wait until I’ve got the time to get to One Palestine, Complete.

  8. Sean, some Arabs who fight Israel may hate Israelis and like Jews. But the ones lobbing the missiles over from Gaza and southern Lebanon are Islamist fanatics among whom–by all the evidence of their websites and publications–are many who hate Jews pure and simple. And, while I’m not one to insist that anti-Zionism is equivalent to Jew-hating, those who say they love Jews while denying Jewish peoplehood (like the Iranian regime) are conditioning their love on Jewish denial of a major part of their identity. That’s like Golda Meir denying the existence of a Palestinian nation, or like those fundamentalist Christians, so well documented by Gerhom in his book “The End of Days,” who love Jews and support Israel but in fact believe that any Jew who doesn’t accept Jesus will be sent to hell at the Second Coming.

  9. Haim: I’m afraid that this gets to the crux of the issue. And I’m afraid that there’s not much wiggle room for us to eek out an agreement here. I think you’re confusing a rejection of a Jewish state in what was mandate Palestine and rejection of a Jewish state altogether.

    Of course counterfactuals aren’t terribly helpful, but I think most of the world can agree that Hamas wouldn’t be sending rockets at Israelis if the Jewish state had been founded in Uganda, Argentina or Madagascar. (In fact, Hamas most likely wouldn’t exist at all.) We can also probably agree that had Israel been created in any of those places, there would likely be Ugandan, Argentinian or Malgache groups attacking the Jewish state instead of Islamist ones. I don’t think that would necessarily make those people anti-semites.

    Likewise, I don’t think that my rejection of citizenship and statehood based on ethno-religious criteria makes me an anti-semite. But perhaps you’d beg to differ. Further, who’s to say that Israel is a “major part” of Jewish identity? After all, there are more French, American and Argentinian Jews than there are Israeli Jews. Personally, I know Jews for whom Israel plays absolutely no part in their identity, religious or otherwise. And what does that say about pre-Zionist Jewish identity? If Israel is such a major part of Jewish identity, does that mean that it was somehow incomplete until 1948?

    As for the fundamentalist Christians, I’ve not read Gerhom’s book, but I have spent many a year in the Bible Belt, and I can tell you that from my experience, it’s more accurate to say that they dislike Jews less than they dislike Arabs and Muslims. But it’s right that at the end of the day, both are just tools to bring about the second coming.

    So I don’t think the parallel is a fair one, because I think you’d find that Iranians and Palestinians and Lebanese would be more or less indifferent to the idea of a Jewish state, were it in South America instead of the Middle East.

  10. I always sought to differentiate between the Holocaust and the Arab anti-Zionist struggle. I t was hard given what was done to Hebron’s and Tzfat’s Jews in 1929, among the other attacks. And then it occured to me on the background of the suicide attacks that I never heard of a Nazi who, seeing that some Jews managed to escape death in the gas chambers, strapped on dynamite and threw himself on them to make sure they did not get away. But here, in Israel, Arabs have basically done that, sacrifice themselves, whereas Nazis never did. Strange. Whose ideologically motivation, then, is worse?

    And as for why be Jewish, Paul Newman’s reason for considering himself Jewish was “I find it more challenging”.

  11. “Here in this transport
    Am I Eve
    With Abel my boy
    If you see my elder son
    Cain the human being
    Tell him that I”

    This the pivot. I am tired of fighting for or against Israel because of the Holocaust or suicide bombing; I am tired of fighting for or against Palestinians because of cleansing and occupation. This conflict is just one more, in torturous slow motion, seen throughout history and before history. I will not turn from this conflict for only one reason: we fight our own evolution. There is evidence that the Homo line engaged in canabilism. Given the current typology of that line, is seems that our direct ancestors were copresent with now extinct lateral shifts of the line. I think it likely our ancestors did some cleansing along the way, both within and across species. I think we evolved from that cleansing. Look at the honesty of Torah. And Qur’an.

    I of absolutely no importance continue to face this conflict (only by words) because I thereby face my own evolution. And I can do so, even if only in words, because evolution fights itself: look at Torah a second time, look at Qur’an a second time. We are humanity fighting itself, our only hope. And from that:

    —Why not “I’m a Jew because the Jewish people produced the Bible, whose stories and poetry have become the common heritage of mankind?” Why not “I’m a Jew because of my people’s ethos of learning, argument, and dialogue, because of the Talmud, midrashim, and thinkers ranging from Maimonides to Spinoza to Soleveitchik?” —

    To Spinoza.

    “It is the responsibility of God to confront Itself.”
    –Anthoney Pau Cabrales

    I apologize for parasitizing your words.

    greg

  12. Dear Haim,
    This most wonderful story got me thinking. I think that we are not here because of the Christian, Arab or whoever benevolence. I think we are here in spite of them.We are here Davka! Am Israel Chai if to anyone we owe our survival it’s to Ha- Shem. Yes it is important to understand about the Holocaust but my husband Nathan is always saying Israel is bigger than this. We are also alive because we have the State of Israel. We are safer in the US at least. Europe especially France not so much. Thank You Another important Necessary Story

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