Auschwitz: 75 Years Later

Last Monday, three quarters of a century ago, Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army. French scholar David Rousset, deemed the Nazi murder camps as belonging to a distinct ontological category, which he called “L’Universe Concentrationnaire” (The “Concentrationary Universe.”) Israeli novelist Yehiel De-Nur, a survivor, also regarded the reality of Auschwitz as akin to that of a “different planet.” This is a gravely mistaken misconception, I believe. Auschwitz, the Holocaust, and all the industrialized genocides of the 20th century, were monstrously unique, precisely because so-called civilized humanity harnessed its finest scientific and industrialized tools and know-how, in order to orchestrate a diabolically efficient mechanism for systemic dehumanization and mass murder. The Holocaust is, whether we like it or not, one of the chief, albeit horrific, hallmark features of the modern secular condition (see for example, Zigmunt Bauman’s book “Modernity & the Holocaust”). And by the way, it is unacceptable to say “Hitler killed six million Jews.” Physically speaking, Hitler didn’t kill a single Jew. It is the people who followed him in the tens of millions, and the many hundreds of thousands who actively took bureaucratic part in the genocidal machinery – including numerous collaborators in every single European land, who perpetrated the Holocaust. To claim that “Hitler” killed them is not only a gross falsification of history, it is also an egregious affront to the memory of the deceased.

In 1941, as our brothers and sisters were murdered in the hundreds of thousands in the forests of Eastern Europe, Winston Churchill chillingly spoke of “a crime that has no name.” The word genocide was introduced to the human vocabulary in 1947, by a Jewish diplomat named Raphael Lemkin. The 20th century, the most secular century in history, was also the most murderous century in history. It will forever be associated with the words “Auschwitz,” “Gulag,” “Cambodia,” “Rwanda,” “Hiroshima,” “Nagasaki,” “the former Yugoslavia,” and more. And yet, as Elie Wiesel said, quoting French essayist and novelist Albert Camus, while frequenting Buchenwald concentration camp, and standing alongside Chancellor Merkel and President Obama, there is still “more to celebrate than to denigrate in the human condition.”

There is still more to celebrate than to denigrate in the human condition, thanks to the existential heroism of our survivors, our ultimate life teachers. And also, thanks to the righteous amongst the nations, who saved, not only thousands of lives, but also – the dignity of humankind. For the sake of our future, and for that of our descendants, let us engrave upon our hearts and minds Elie Wiesel’s astute insight that “the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is indifference.” It is ethical indifference and moral apathy, which enables genocides to be perpetrated. An astounding midrash (rabbinic teaching), teaches us that when a human being mints monetary coins – they all come out perfectly identical, but when the Almighty fashions a visage, a human face, each one emerges utterly unique, sacred, distinguished and distinct. Human diversity, implies our spiritual heritage, is not a source for lamentation, but rather – a cause for boundless enrichment and celebration. There are immeasurable blessings and dignity inherent in our manifold differences, and it is precisely because we are all different – individually and collectively, ethnically, culturally, linguistically and religiously – that each and every one of us can make a unique and lasting contribution.

May Hashem eradicate hatred from our hearts, and may we all learn to attend to the healing of our own wounds, rather than to thrust our existential pain upon others.

Rabbi Sessler

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