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May 27, 2015 10:45 am

Never Forget – But Don’t Stay Trapped in the Past

avatar by Albert Wachtel

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The gate at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Films that reawaken the horror of the Holocaust are an unfortunate necessity. They introduce that time of despicable inhumanity to the uninformed and misinformed, and expose the duplicity of fraudulent anti-Semites. But their message is often damaged by anthropomorphic sentimentality that should be edited out. No, the Lord was not holding the hands of the victims the Nazis killed in their gas chambers. Rambam taught us long ago that “the hand of God” is a metaphor, and in this case – though well intended – it is a pernicious metaphor.  God had nothing to do with the death of those innocents. Those innocents died in unrelieved anguish. No one held their hands as they clawed the walls and tried to climb out on top of each other.

Faith among survivors after that horror was an almost inconceivable challenge. Elie Wiesel, utterly steeped in the faith and Talmud as a pre-Holocaust youngster, saw the slow death of a child, incompetently hanged by the SS, as the death of God. The debasement and systematic depravations and tortures to which the Nazis, with their factories of death, reduced the victims they chose to kill slowly with forced labor and starvation are too deep for those who never experienced it to recognize without the aid of those who did.

In fact, one of the lessons in the films the Nazis made to document their crimes is that the human species is capable of depravity of such depth that they can be proud of it. We must learn from what the victims went through and honor them for somehow moving on from that experience. Israel, the reborn Jewish nation that welcomed them, recognized that to function in the world it would have to accept relations with Germany. The decent among German survivors of the Nazis were filled with shame; some of the indecent have also survived. Still, Germany, under the honorable leadership of figures like Angela Merkel, has been a crucial supporter of Israel and an opponent of anti-Semitism.

Individual survivors of the Nazis, too, must move on. Many were outraged when Eva Kor, who survived Auschwitz, said she forgave the Nazi guard on trial for complicity in 300,000 deaths there. Disapproval of her response is acceptable only from other survivors. The rest of us must try to understand. She is determined to move on from the all but inconceivable horrors she was subjected to. Her way of doing that is to say she forgives the monsters. That puts them behind her and allows her to look forward, instead of forever grinding in retrospective anger.

The lasting damage the Nazis can do to survivors and their kin is to have infected them with a responsive hatred to the Nazi hate – a version of the Nazi’s own unexamined repugnance of others. “Forgiveness,” whatever that means in her heart, allowed her to live, and, to that extent, to defeat the enemies of decent life. There are many who feel we cannot move on from the Holocaust, but in the end, life leaves us no choice. We must move on.

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  • Chris Rubel

    One more thing: “Arbeit Macht Frei,” welded to the gates of deathcamps, and where I first read it, on the gate to Dachau made my compulsive work ethic seem ridiculous. I realized that the freedom that comes from working one’s self exhaustion is the freedom of death.
    Al Wachtel’s observation about Eva Kor’s forgiveness is well put. Eva Kor needed to find a way to go on in her life without being imprisoned forever in the hatred and terrors of her deathcamp life. I hope her “forgiveness” freed her from that psychic imprisonment.

  • Chris Rubel

    The Holocaust should never be forgotten. No one but someone caught in that horror is qualified to forgive. Of all the examples of the atrocities human beings have committed, from the the Viking invasions to the Turk’s genocide of Armenians to Hirohito’s and Stalin’s and Chairman Mau’s killing millions to the current mass killings and tortures, NOTHING is equal to the anti-Semitic agonies the Nazis committed, while the world ignored and denied intervention, including the populace of Germany who knew much of what was happening. Al Wachtel’s excellent piece, above, is right on target. Even the history revisionists cannot wipe these events from our consciousness. The remnant of WWII’s D-Day and Battle of the Bulge were ordered to evacuate the death camps, sanitize them, and either bury or treat the starved, dying, and severely sick from the many death camps. (Read Don Rosen’s Saving Private Weinmann.) Those troops, on orders, converted to medical personnel from their previous killer roles, never healed from the what confronted them in 1945, at the end of war to end all wars. No matter what horrors they had experienced in combat, what they found in “liberating” the death camps was much worse for most of them. Thank you, Prof. Wachtel. Never let us forget and to hell with forgiveness! Chris

  • Jerry

    ok, but punishment is more important than “forgiveness”.

    Am yisroel chai!

  • I found your remarks interesting and important. I hope it will stimulate thinking and debate about the important merits for victims & society in teaching forgiveness. For thousands of years society went along with the ideas of a tooth for a tooth, and this is keeping victims, victims and creates new victims. Lets start this important debate.
    Thank you, Eva Kor

  • Mitchell

    Forgiveness is a good thing on the part of the victim, as it permits the victim to proceed with life less encumbered by the past. Likely Joseph realized that when he forgave his brothers.

    A small point. The fascist attempt to conquer the planet produced the Holocaust. Without that European conquest, Germany’s 600,000 Jews in Germany would have readily found sanctuary elsewhere. Islamic fascists today intend world conquest; this should not be ignored.