Category Archive: Essays

Why Palestinians Should Learn About the Holocaust

Should Palestinian and other Arab schools teach their students about the Holocaust?

This is not an academic question. Many Palestinian and Arab political organizations recently pounced on reports that a new human rights curriculum being prepared for use in Gaza schools operated by Unrwa, the United Nations aid agency for Palestinian refugees, might include historical references to the Holocaust. Their reaction underscores the urgency of answering this fundamental question: Should Palestinians (and other Arabs) learn about the Holocaust? Should this historical tragedy be included in the Arab curriculum?

We — a Muslim-Palestinian social scientist, and a Jewish-American historian — believe the answer is yes. Indeed, there are many reasons why it’s important, even essential, that Arabs learn about the Holocaust. And much of this has nothing to do with Jews at all.

One of the sad realities of many modern Arab societies is that Arab students have been denied history, their own and the world’s. For decades, millions of Arabs have lived under autocrats resentful of the legacy of the leader they replaced and fearful of the leader-to-come. Although Arabs revere the study, writing and teaching of history, and have produced many famous historians, their rulers often tend to view history as a threat. The result is that many historians in Arab countries are more like the court chroniclers of long-dead dynasties, and entire chapters of history have been expunged from the curricula that Arab governments teach their students.

This is particularly true of the Holocaust. A world that has known terrible atrocities has seen none greater than the effort by Nazi Germany and its allies to exterminate the Jewish people. So methodical, so vicious and so exhaustive was the Nazi effort that a new word was coined to describe it — “genocide.” All genocides before and since are judged against the Holocaust. To the extent that we can prevent genocide in the future — an uphill task, given the record of the last few decades — understanding what gives rise to it is essential. Without discussing the Holocaust, discussing genocide is meaningless.

But Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, know little about the Holocaust and what they do know is often skewed by the perverted prism of Arab popular culture, from the ranting of religious extremists to the distortions of certain satellite television channels to the many ill-informed authors. What happened to the Jews during World War II is not taught in Arab schools or universities, either as part of world history or as a lesson in genocide awareness or as an atrocity that ought not to be repeated. Arabs have nothing to fear from opening their eyes to this chapter of human history. As the Koran says: “And say: My Lord, advance me in knowledge.” If Arabs knew more about the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, perhaps Arab voices would be more forceful in trying to stop similar atrocities.

Palestinians have more specific reasons to learn about the Holocaust. We do not urge Holocaust education just so Palestinians can understand more sympathetically the legacy of Jewish suffering and its impact on the psyche of the Jewish people. While it is important for both Palestinians and Israelis to appreciate the historical legacies that have shaped their strategic outlook and national identities, teaching Palestinians about the Holocaust for this reason alone runs the risk the feeding the facile equation that “the Jews have the Holocaust and the Palestinians have the Nakba.” We urge Palestinians to learn about the Holocaust so they can be armed with knowledge to reject the comparison because, if it were broadly avoided, peace would be even more attainable than it is today.

Why are we still obsessed with the Third Reich?

It’s long been a truism of publishing that putting a swastika on the front of a book will guarantee healthy sales. (Yes, yes, or indeed a healthy readership for a blog post.) I have direct experience of this, as most of the books I write feature swastikas, or eagles, or similar pieces of Third Reich iconography. Unsurprisingly, I’ll therefore be tuning in to Radio 4 at 11.30 this morning, which is broadcasting a documentary called Nazi Gold on the publishing industry’s Third Reich fetish. (Ironically enough, at the time of writing, a piece about the program is the third-most read story on the BBC news website.) As one of the interviewees for the program, I was asked why the publishing industry, and indeed why such a large segment of the (male) population, maintains this interest in a murderous regime that extinguished millions of lives. It’s a question I tried to answer nearly nine years ago, in a piece I wrote for The Spectator shortly after I published my first book (which was about Nazis). I concluded then that the fetish arises from ‘the human attraction towards evil’. “The Devil not only gets the best tunes,” I wrote, “but, in the case of the Nazis, the best costumes, the best generals, the best weapons, the best iconography and even the most powerful-sounding language. From Göttermorgen to Götterdämmerung, it is the blackest story ever told, and it’s still being told everywhere.”I’m not sure that after nearly a decade of immersing myself in the Third Reich that I can come up with much better than that. We, like many other cultures, do tend to glamourise evil and violence – read David Wilson in today’s Daily Mail about TV’s love affair with serial killers – and there is no doubt that this often lurid obsession with Nazis is part of that malaise.

Reflecting on the Essence of Auschwitz

Re “Auschwitz Tailors Its Story for New Generation,” by Michael Kimmelman (New York Times, Feb. 19):

As the son of Auschwitz survivors, I was appalled at what I consider a universalization and dejudaization of the Auschwitz death camp in this article. It minimizes the Jewish essence of the devastation perpetrated at Auschwitz-Birkenau.Mr. Kimmelman early on implies that the significance of Auschwitz is the same “for Jews and non-Jews alike,” then, deep into the long article, acknowledges that “hundreds of thousands of Jews” were murdered there, and, finally, engages in a superficial discussion of the “symbolic ‘ownership’ of Auschwitz.”The overwhelming majority of the men, women and children murdered at Auschwitz were Jews. According to statistics from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “at least 960,000” of a total of between 1,080,000 and 1,085,000 of those murdered at Auschwitz — about 89 percent — were Jews. Moreover, the large subcamp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the four main gas chambers and crematories were located, was built for the principal purpose of carrying out Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”For most of the four decades after World War II, the Communist regime of Poland did its utmost to suppress the Jewish identity of the victims of the Holocaust, including the victims of Auschwitz. Those of us involved in promoting Holocaust remembrance thought that we had evolved since then. Apparently we were wrong.My grandparents, my 5 1/2-year-old brother — my mother’s son — and most of the members of my immediate family were murdered in the Auschwitz gas chambers only and exclusively because they were Jews. So were close to one million other Jews, if not more.Efforts to better explain the death camp to younger visitors must not be allowed to come at the expense of recognizing the Jewish centrality of what is the largest Jewish cemetery not just in Poland but in the world.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft
The writer, a lawyer and law professor, is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.

‘The long road home’ for Jews after the Holocaust

By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Vice President, American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants

Most people would not consider a mere five years to be an “era,” that term generally being reserved for far longer spans of time. And yet, as is evident from Ben Shephard’s masterful The Long Road Home, The Aftermath of the Second World War, published this month, the five years following the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of World War II in the spring of 1945, when hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors as well as non-Jewish erstwhile forced laborers from various parts of Eastern Europe languished in Displaced Persons (DP) camps, indeed constituted an era.”The concept of the ‘displaced persons,'” writes Shephard, “determined the shape of the Allied humanitarian effort after the war . . . because, as it turned out, the war’s most important legacy was a refugee crisis. When the dust had settled and all those who wished to had returned home, there remained in Germany, Austria and Italy a residue of some 1 million people who were mot inclined to go back to their own countries – Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and Yugoslavs.”By way of full disclosure, my father, Josef Rosensaft, who headed both the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany and the Jewish Committee that administered the Bergen-Belsen DP camp, is featured in The Long Road Home, and Shephard graciously refers to me in his acknowledgments. Shephard’s discussion of the critical rehabilitative function of Zionism for the Jewish DPs is especially instructive. David Ben-Gurion, who visited some of the DP camps in the fall of 1945, intuitively understood the public relations value of Jewish survivors of the death camps clamoring for a homeland. When an American member of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, urged a young Jewish DP to have patience, the latter replied, “How can you talk to us of patience? After six years of this war, after all our parents have been burned in the gas ovens, you talk to us of patience?”

Making Holocaust Remembrance Matter

By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
On January 27, the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the United Nations and much of the world will be observing Holocaust Remembrance Day. Sadly, the rhetoric of commemoration will once again be severely undercut by the international community’s wholly inadequate response to the numerous genocides that have taken place, and continue to take place, since the end of World War II. Sixty-five years ago, on January 28, 1946, precisely one year and a day after Soviet troops had entered Auschwitz, Marie Claude Vaillant-Couturier took the stand at the international military tribunal at Nuremberg where Adolf Hitler’s erstwhile deputy, Hermann Goering, and 20 other senior German government officials were on trial for war crimes, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. A member of the French anti-German underground, Vaillant-Couturier, had been deported to Auschwitz in January of 1943 “with a convoy of 230 French women,” of whom, as she recounted, only 49 eventually “came back to France.” Vaillant-Couturier, who later served as a Communist member of France’s parliament, described the conditions at Auschwitz in horrific detail. She remembered being in a barrack adjacent to Block 25, “the anteroom of the gas chamber,” where “One saw stacks of corpses piled up in the courtyard, and from time to time a hand or a head would stir among the bodies trying to free itself. It was a dying woman attempting to get free and live.”“One night,” she testified, “we were awakened by terrifying cries. And we discovered, on the following day… that on the preceding day, the gas supply having run out, they had thrown the children into the furnaces alive.”As early as November of 1943, the leaders of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union jointly declared that those responsible for the “atrocities, massacres and cold-blooded mass executions which are being perpetrated by the Hitlerite forces” would be held accountable. During the summer of 1945, a new cause of action for “crimes against humanity” was created to enable the perpetrators of systematic mass killings, including the genocide of European Jewry, to be brought to justice at Nuremberg and elsewhere.The Genocide Convention, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on December 9, 1949, was meant to put an end to systematic mass killings as a means of promoting megalomaniacal aspirations of ethnic or religious supremacy. Instead, the past half-century has seen devastating new genocides in Rwanda, Darfur and the former Yugoslavia. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly and unabashedly threatens the citizens of Israel with genocidal destruction, has yet to be declared a criminal under either the Genocide Convention or the Nuremberg standards.Only recently, many of us were appalled to learn from newly released White House recordings that in March of 1973, Henry Kissinger, then President Nixon’s national security adviser, told his boss that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Thereafter, Kissinger, as secretary of state, did nothing to stop the massacres in East Timor at the hands of Indonesian forces that claimed more than 100,000 lives. Kissinger could learn something from Asidada Dudic, who was a student of mine in a seminar on World War II war crimes trials at Cornell Law School. She is also a survivor of the genocidal atrocities perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces in the 1990s.As a child, she spent three years in refugee camps with her mother and sisters. A “hurtful reality,” Adisada writes, “reminds me that my home country is destroyed, my family members are scattered all over the world, thousands of Bosnian women and girls were raped and ravaged, thousands of Bosnian men and boys were tortured in concentration camps and buried in mass graves, and so many of my people were slaughtered by an enemy hand that was out to get every single person that self-identified as a Bosnian Muslim…. I am infuriated that we continue to have gross violations of human rights all over the world while we continue to find excuses for why we cannot interfere in other countries’ affairs.”Adisada understands what Henry Kissinger, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, apparently did not. Eradicating the scourge of genocide must be an American foreign policy priority. Indeed, it must be a priority of every civilized nation, of every civilized human being.On January 27, there are certain to be moving speeches in the U.N. General Assembly that will focus on the ghosts and shadows of the past. However, unless we as an international society unambiguously commit ourselves to preventing all such atrocities and to protecting innocent victims like Adisada, our collective remembrance of the Holocaust will ring hollow.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, the son of two survivors of Auschwitz, is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.

French novelist blames grandfather for Nazi roundup of Jews

Alexandre Jardin, a top French novelist, has blamed his grandfather for the biggest wartime round up of French Jews, igniting a literary and family row as historians and critics trade blows over whether he has re-written history to suit the story. Until now, Mr Jardin has been known for a string of fluffy, feel-good bestsellers in which he often makes light of his family.But in his latest book, Very Nice People, out next week, he launches a scathing attack on his grandfather, Jean Jardin, who was chef de cabinet of Pierre Laval – prime minister of the collaborationist Vichy government – from April 1942 to October 1943.Historians and writers – including Alexandre’s own father – have concurred that Jean Jardin was a relatively minor figure in the Vichy government. He was pardoned of any wrongdoing after helping the Resistance later in the war from his base in Switzerland. He went on to be a financier and was close to several top politicians, including François Mitterrand, the former president. He was also a friend of Coco Chanel.But Alexandre Jardin insists these accounts are indulgent, and that his grandfather was instrumental in the Vél’ d’Hiv’ roundup, in which around 13,000 French Jews, including more than 4,000 children, were arrested in Paris and placed in a bicycle racetrack and the nearby Drancy internment camp. Most died in Auschwitz.

The Kissinger “Gas Chambers” Debacle – A Post Mortem

Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Special to the Jewish Week

‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except, of course, Henry Kissinger’s publicists and strategists who decided that the slowest news day of the year was the perfect time for him to apologize, sort of, for telling Richard Nixon in 1973 that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”They may have finally realized – an apt epiphany given the season – that by not issuing such an admission of regret earlier, Kissinger had violated his own maxim that “whatever must happen ultimately should happen immediately.” They probably also hoped that no one would pay attention over a holiday weekend and that what had become the most embarrassing contretemps (that’s French for public relations train wreck) in the former Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s illustrious career would fade into oblivion. Not so fast.For almost two weeks since the now infamous Oval Office remarks first appeared in the New York Times, Kissinger had refused to acknowledge that he had said anything inappropriate. He at first tried to get out from under his predicament with a disingenuous statement that “The quotations ascribed to me in the transcript of the conversation with President Nixon must be viewed in the context of the time.” Without expressing any contrition whatsoever for what even some of his Jewish defenders deemed to be a “disturbing and even callous insensitivity toward the fate of Soviet Jews,” Kissinger’s statement contended that he and Nixon had in fact raised Jewish emigration from the U.S.S.R. “from 700 per year to close to 40,000 in 1972.” He and the President feared, the statement continued, that efforts to make “Jewish emigration a foreign policy issue” through Congressional legislation – to wit, what became the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment – “would reduce emigration, which is exactly what happened. Jewish emigration never reached the level of 40,000 again until the Soviet Union collapsed.”Unfortunately for Kissinger, he seems to have gotten his facts wrong. As Richard Schifter, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the Reagan administration, pointed out in the Forward, “Kissinger’s analysis is not reflected in the actual emigration data. He was close on the 1970 emigration figure, which was 1,027. His quiet diplomacy during detente did increase that number to an annual average of 20,516 from 1971 to 1974. But after Jackson-Vanik’s passage in 1974, the average for 1975 to 1978 dropped only slightly to 18,271 annually. Then, in 1979, the number of emigrants jumped to 51,320, much more than anything achieved under the Nixon-Kissinger policy.” According to Schifter, it was only after the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing “serious deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations” that Soviet Jewish emigration figures “dropped sharply, reaching a low of 876 in 1984.”

Henry Kissinger’s betrayal: a stark contrast with other American Jews in public life

By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
There can be no question that the recently released White House recordings by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum revealed one of the ugliest remarks ever uttered in the Oval Office.”The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” then National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger told President Nixon in a March 1973 conversation. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”Immediately after these reprehensible comments were made public, I wrote in the New York Jewish Week that they laid bare not just Kissinger’s quasi-obscene obsequiousness but also, perhaps more significantly, his utter lack of any moral compass.Kissinger’s words and behavior stand in stark contrast to other American Jews who have held major governmental and political positions. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that Kissinger “was not the first Jewish adviser to an American president who urged his boss to refrain from rescuing Jews.” Medoff specifically pointed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s adviser and speechwriter Samuel Rosenman who opposed the creation of a federal agency to save Jews from Nazi persecution and mass murder during World War II.True enough. Medoff failed to mention, however, that FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., successfully fought for the creation of what became the War Refugee Board. Morgenthau also squarely confronted anti-Semites and anti-Semitism within the Roosevelt administration. In The Abandonment of the Jews, America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, historian David S. Wyman, for whom Medoff’s institute is named, described how Morgenthau told Breckinridge Long, the Assistant Secretary of State responsible for the Visa Division, that “the impression is all around that you, particularly, are anti-Semitic!”Morgenthau was not the first Jewish American government official to speak out forcefully on behalf of persecuted Jews. Morgenthau’s father, Henry Morgenthau, who served as US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, called public attention to the plight of the Jewish minority in Palestine. In 1915, the senior Morgenthau also alerted the Wilson administration to the widespread massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces in what he called “a campaign of race extermination.”One of Morgenthau’s predecessors as US Minister to Constantinople, Oscar S. Straus, had similarly used his office to intervene on behalf of Jews who had been imprisoned in Jerusalem and were awaiting deportation. Subsequently, as President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of Commerce and Labor, Straus did his utmost to help Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms in the face of restrictive US immigration laws.”Genuinely proud of his Jewish heritage,” Straus’s biographer, Naomi W. Cohen, wrote of him, “he rarely felt handicapped because of it. Rather than choose between Americanism and Judaism, or even feel required to compartmentalize the two as separate entities, he worked out a different solution to the problem of identity which confronted all emancipated Jews. He fused his Jewish ideals with his interpretation of Americanism.”Along the same lines, New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman declared in a 1936 address at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America that, “Judaism stands in persistent protest against the exploitation or oppression of any human being. It insists that each man, woman and child is an incarnation of God, is entitled to the fullest life.”While a member of the United States Supreme Court during the 1930’s, Justice Louis D. Brandeis continued to be an outspoken Zionist and pleaded personally on several occasions with President Roosevelt to pressure the British government to ease its harsh restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine.More recently, after former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim had been exposed as a Nazi who had consistently lied about his past, US Ambassador to Austria, Ronald S. Lauder, who went on to become President of the World Jewish Congress, distinguished himself by refusing to attend Waldheim’s inauguration as President of Austria.