A Bittersweet Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
While President Obama attended meetings in Berlin prior to his grand address at the Brandenburg Gate, First Lady Michelle Obama and their children, Malia and Sasha, visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Guided by the director of the site, Uwe Neumärker, the family spent half an hour among the 2,711 stone sarcophagi which range in height and rise and fall along the undulating ground across the five-acre site.
“They were impressed that we Germans have such a memorial in the centre of our city,” Neumärker later told the JTA. The First Lady in particular was said to have commented that the memorial “really has an aura.” But while the site has the White House seal of approval, since its opening in 2005 — in fact, even during the years preceding its construction — Peter Eisenman’s memorial has been controversial and divisive.
I have been to the memorial on several occasions at different times of day and night and at different times of year. With each visit, my impression of the site evolves and changes. Its scale – the memorial takes up an entire city block – can at times feel alienating and at others speaks to the scope and enormity of the catastrophe. Its logical, fashioned layout and the cool and unrelenting greyness of the stones can either feel distant and impersonal or like a statement about the cold, mechanised, and rationalised way in which the Holocaust was carried out, how it came to be faceless for those who were committing the crime.
In particular, I appreciate the way in which Memorial to the Murdered Jews has come to be the focal point for commemoration of the Jewish past in Berlin, a space for strangers to explore, wander, and wonder. When you walk down into the very centre of the memorial, sunken and enveloped by the looming columns, the sounds and sights of Berlin are eradicated. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe thus, at its best, creates the space for reflection and contemplation, or at the very least forces an emotional response through isolation and dislocation. At night, when the stelae hold back what little light there is, such thoughts and reactions are only heightened, deepened.
This is made possible by the memorial’s abstraction and ambiguity – nothing about it is guided or forced, each visitor granted the space to engage and have their own experience. But it is this indistinctness and the almost remote nature of the memorial that has beget criticism. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody stated that there is a vagueness about the memorial which is he finds “disturbing”. Indeed, without the full title, “it would be impossible to know what the structure is meant to commemorate; there’s nothing about these concrete slabs that signifies any of the words of the title, except, perhaps, ‘memorial.’”
This disconnection Brody identifies is indeed inescapable. For a site which proclaims itself to be specifically dedicated to the memory of murdered Jews, there is nothing particularly Jewish about it at all. By comparison, across the street is the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime, at which through a small window in a concrete cuboid, a movie depicting a kiss is visible. This scene is befitting as a symbol of defiance, “a lasting symbol against exclusion, intolerance and animosity towards gays and lesbians.” Whatever one thinks of the memorial and the film, it does at the very least fulfil its duty in this way.
In Prishtina, Jews Have Become History
PRISHTINA, Kosovo — There is no longer a Jewish community in Pristina, the capital of the newly independent country of Kosovo. Through flight, deportation, aliya, and intermarriage, Jewish Pristina has over the past seventy years gradually diminished into non-existence.
During the era when Kosovo formed part of Yugoslavia, the government in Belgrade did not do much to discourage this trend. In fact, in 1963 as part of an effort to rationalise the centre of Pristina, the authorities demolished swathes of the city’s historic centre, including many Ottoman-era houses, a covered market, and various holy places including Pristina’s only synagogue. The gradual exodus of Jews thus came with an erasure of their physical presence.
Since independence in 2008, however, the new government of the Republic of Kosovo has sought to memorialise Pristina’s Jewish history. Not only does the government view such efforts as essential to Kosovo becoming a nation integrated into Europe, but it understands the parallels between the histories of Jews and Kosovar Albanians, both as persecuted peoples, peoples who have been the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and peoples whose ambitions at statehood have been rejected by the rest of their respective neighbourhoods.
This process began in the summer of 2011, when students from Dartmouth and the American University in Pristina cooperated on an exploration of genocide, an exercise which culminated in the renovation of the city’s small Jewish cemetery. A new entrance was constructed, the site tidied, and the gravestones repaired, renovated, and replaced to their original location, the shards and slabs having previously been littered around and about.
But a few months later, the site was vandalised by neo-Nazis who spray-painted swastikas on the freshly-repaired gravestones, adding the words “Juden Raus” for good measure. Within forty-eight hours, municipal authorities made clean the site, and today while the grass has grown long around the burial places, the stones themselves – some of which are more than a hundred years old – remain in place and intact.
Europe’s Foundation of Ashes and Dust
Europe’s foundations are constructed upon ashes and dust. They are built where the walls of the ghettos were once erected around overcrowded quarters in Warsaw, Łódź, and Krakow. They are built upon the pits of Babi Yar and the mass graves made across Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine. They are built upon the ruins of the camps whose names are forever branded on our collective memory: Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor.
Europe exists because of the Holocaust – it is forever tied to that awful past. Through education, commemoration, and memorialisation, the peoples of Europe are constantly borne back to the horrific events which preceded our zero hour, in the knowledge that they were of our own making and that it is our responsibility as a continent to ensure such things never occur again. European institutions exist precisely in order to prevent another war to end all wars, another war of imperialism, slavery, and annihilation.
By extension, Europe also exists in order to protect those who were the victims of the last great war and Hitler’s campaign of racial and biological purification, including and perhaps above all the Jewish people. Ensuring the safety and allowing for the political, economic, and cultural flourishing of European Jewry is or should be one of postwar Europe’s founding principles. It is an obligation of national governments and the European community to uphold it at all costs.
The nations of Europe have indeed succeeded in preventing another war, another catastrophe, yet across the continent conditions for Jews are worsening. In 2012, recorded anti-Semitic hate crimes increased by 30 percent year-on-year, ranging from physical violence to the vandalism of synagogues and cemeteries. This was not, as it has been in the past, a phenomenon linked to events in the Middle East, a revulsion at times of conflagration and unrest in Gaza or Lebanon. Rather, there has been an overall deterioration in the economic and political state of Europe, with Jews suffering disproportionately as a consequence.
Memory and the Vel d’Hiv
Monday marked the seventieth anniversary of the rafle du Vel d’Hiv, the mass arrest and deportation of Jewry from France, conducted by Nazi and some 9,000 Vichy police officers, on July 16 and 17, 1942. 12,884 Jews were penned into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the majority including 4,000 children for five days in the heat of summer with little sustenance, before movement onto Drancy and then Auschwitz. An official act of commemoration in the presence of President François Hollande will take place on Sunday, July 22.
A poll conducted by CSA for the French Union of Jewish Students has revealed that 67% of those aged between 15 and 17, 60% between 18 and 24, and 57% between 25 and 34 did not know of the round up of Jews into and out of the Vél d’Hiv. Across the entire population, 42% possessed no knowledge of the one of the most important events in the history of twentieth century France, indicitive of the nation’s struggle and oftentimes failure to face up to the hand it played in the Holocaust.
It was not until 1995 that the French government officially acknowledged that it had played any part in this most heinous of acts. “These dark hours soil our history forever and are an insult to our past and our traditions. The French and the French state seconded the occupying powers in their criminal folly”, Jacques Chirac proclaimed on Vél d’Hiv day in 1995. “France committed the irreparable”.
History and the Holocaust: Holding the Vatican to Account
Historical narratives in the Middle East have often been the most malleable of things, twisted and adapted to suit the needs of political or monied interests. As Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in his ambitious and sweeping tome, Jerusalem: The Biography, during the 1990s, the PLO banned Palestinian historians from admitting that there had been a Jewish Temple built upon the Haram al-Sharif. This instruction came from the top, and at Camp David in 2000 when peace was within pen’s reach, Yasser Arafat is said to have “shocked” American and Israeli negotiators by suggesting that the Temple was in fact located on the Samaritan Mount Gerizim. Any Jewish claim to the Mount or indeed the city itself was therefore a kind of modern fabrication.
The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has too suffered from the existence of propagandistic and nationalistic historical narratives from which deviation was (and in some cases still is) deemed unacceptable. It was not until the 1980s in Israel that, thanks in the rise of the New Historians including Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim, the hypothesis that the Land’s Arab population in 1948 fled their homes of their own will, or that they were instructed to do so by their leadership, was publically challenged and discredited by worthy scholars. On the other side of the fence in Palestinian schools, whilst textbooks have had passages which incite violence expunged, the State Department found that they often showed “imbalance, bias, and inaccuracy”, with some failing to depict “the current political reality, showing neither Israel nor the settlements”. It very much remains the case that one man’s atzmaut is another man’s nakba.
Within Israel and the wider West at least, those whose pursuit is the study of the Holocaust have by contrast been committed to the search for a truthful historical narrative. This is not to say the Holocaust is not open to historical debate – see the division which exists between the intentionalists and functionalists over the very origins and nature of the Shoah, as an example. It is certainly the case, however, that the volumes of research published on the Holocaust have led to the creation of a clear narrative arc, replicated in museums and memorials around the world, including in Jerusalem’s most astonishing and draining exhibit at Yad Vashem.
The most recent alteration to the main display, however, places such claims into doubt. Writing in Ha’aretz, Nir Hasson reports that a wall panel explaining the role, or lack thereof, of the Vatican and the leadership of the Catholic Church in Holocaust has been edited in order to portray Pope Pius XII in a more flattering light. Whilst the previous inscription noted that Pius XII, whose accession occurred in 1939, “shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared” and “abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews”, the new panel adds what might be deemed colour, adding that some argue his silence “left the initiative to rescue Jews to individual clerics and laymen” who carried out “a considerable number of secret rescue activities”.
With god on their side, no peace in our time
“We are destined to live together, on the same soil in the same land. We say to you today, in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough! We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in affinity as human beings, as free men.” - - Yitzhak Rabin, September 13 1993.
If the Arab-Israeli conflict is, as has so often been said, purely a struggle for the control of land, then there would have been a peace by now. When Yasser Arafat extended his hand to Yitzhak Rabin on the lawn of the White House in September 1993, it was a signal to their neighbours and to the world that the die had been cast, and they would work toward the formation of two states for two peoples in one land, in a condition of perpetual peace.
Based upon the recollections of President Clinton, to believe that this was possible in the wake of the Oslo Accords is not as preposterous as it would now seem. Rabin had, asserts Clinton, come to realise Israeli occupation of the West Bank was “no longer necessary to its security”, and undermined Israel’s status as a Jewish, democratic state. Arafat too, for what it’s worth, in a letter to Rabin wrote the PLO “recognises the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security”, and in doing renounced “use of terrorism and other acts of violence.”
Thus it seemed – in the lovely post-Oslo light – that the political mainstreams in the Land of Israel had incubated a suitable environment for peace to bloom, and that broadly speaking it was understood the ends to which those sat around the negotiating table were aiming for. Then three bullets, fired from a Beretta 84F semi-automatic pistol, which resulted in the death of Yitzbak Rabin, set in train the decline of the peace process into chaos, violence and impasse.
The assassination of Rabin, and the events which followed, debunk the myth of the Arab-Israeli conflict as the battle of land, demonstrating that religion, and not politics, continues to be the force poisoning the peace process and preventing further progress. From the Mediterranean to the Jordan, the parties of god – Hamas and Hezbollah; Shas, and in its worst excesses Likud – have inflicted a great deal of damage upon the internal functioning of the region, and the search for peace.
Although Israel was founded as a homeland for the Jews, the refugees who took advantage of the Law of Return were largely of a secular disposition. They retained the customs and practices of Judaism, but had long ago given up on a god who had abandoned them during the Shoah. But devout Judaism is now on the rise, with Orthodox families breeding like rabbits, creating a fundamental schism at the heart of Israeli society. Only last week for instance The Guardian reported on Holocaust survivor Eli Tzvieli, who was denounced by his neighbour Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for renting rooms to Arabs in Safed.
Eliyahu advocates “the expulsion of all Arabs from land he says God gave to the Jewish people,” and it is this potent mix of bigotry grounded in the worst kind of clerical dogma extends to the attitudes of those who continue to colonise the West Bank like Jewish conquistadors. The construction of settlements, on land that the ultra-Orthodox deem part of Eretz Yisrael, is part of a silly, superstitious and ultimately apocalyptically dangerous plot to bring on the Messiah and marginalise or better yet rid the Holy Lands of infidelic influences.
The settlers are aided and abetted by the Israeli government, a nasty coalition of nationalistically and religiously orthodox parties that include ministers from Shas, who advocate segregation between Jews and Arabs. The whole sordid operation is overseen by Benjamin Netanyahu, a most untrustworthy little toad whose mirror has two faces. Throughout the entirety of worthless and meaningless public career, he has shown no appetite for peace whatsoever, only exploiting the whole process like some sort of pimp, offering a flash of the flesh in return for military hardware.
The resurgence of Orthodox Judaism in Israel comes at the most unfortunate moment for the peace process, coupled as it as with the arrival of fascism with an Islamic face in a strip of land that shares a fifty-one kilometre border with the Jewish state. For, in part of the Palestinian Territories, years of mismanagement under the guiding hand of an ailing Arafat gave rise to Hamas. This is perhaps the worst development in the Middle East’s post-Oslo story.
Hamas’ Covenant is clear: the “Zionist invasion is a vicious invasion”; it strives to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine”; there is “no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.” The Covenant specifically quotes the Prophet Mohammed: “the Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees.”
Since their takeover of the Gaza Strip, they have transformed the territory into a prison state, and a base of operations for terror against the State of Israel. In 2008 alone, 1752 Qassam rockets were launched by Hamas, including 223 during an agreed ceasefire, resulting in the deaths of eight Israeli civilians. Only since Operation Cast Lead and the implementation of the blockade has the number decreased.
Hamas, outcast during the most recent round of peace negotiations, has undertaken a campaign to destabilisation. Part of this operation included the murder in cold blood of four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, on the West Bank. Gunmen fired on a vehicle carrying two men and two women at a junction near the city of Hebron. Hamas described the event as a “heroic operation”.
The efforts of Yitzhak Rabin showed that, in spite of political, national and indeed spiritual differences, it was possible to make overtures and concessions toward the establishment of two states cohabiting amicably in the Land of Israel. But this was a different time. The Arab-Israeli conflict can no longer be called a battle for land alone. It has mutated into a war of religious fundamentalisms, out of which no victor can possibly emerge. Whilst the parties of god continue to square off, derail the peace process, undermine secularism, and meddle in internal governmental affairs, we will not see peace in our time the Middle East.