The attempt to struggle with the unanswerable questions posed by the tragedy of the Shoah is evidenced by the enormous growth of Holocaust literature: Juxtaposing the Holocaust with the American tragedy of September 11 is not intended to draw either historical or moral parallels. Except for the irrational wickedness and evil which generated these two events, they were generically different. The Holocaust perpetrated by a godless tyranny was tragically nurtured in part by traditional Christian doctrine which condemned Jews to martyrdom for their sin of rejecting Jesus as the savior and son of God. September 11 was perpetrated by fanatical Muslim extremists in the name of God.
What motivated me to undertake this very delicate analysis of the two events was only one striking similarity. One remembers an utterance by the late Golda Meir characterizing the Shoah to this effect: “The tragedy of the Holocaust is that the unthinkable happened.” The same applies to September 11: again “the unthinkable happened.” As a result, America will never be the same.
The moral lesson derived from these two unique, “unthinkable” events can be only one: Evil wherever and whenever it appears must be confronted forcefully and uncompromisingly. Alas, we are not yet at this level. The world community and the UN have so far failed to create an instrumentality capable of halting atrocities. These atrocities continue daily throughout our globe. Is this an absolutely unavoidable fact of the human condition?
The most painful soul-searching examinations of tenets of faith – a process still in its infancy – befell the two major religions; the Jewish and the Christian, the first one groping the eternal question “why,” the other with the unfathomable “silence.” Conquering the sin of silence is not limited only to the Vatican. At the 1943 Bermuda Conference, the Allies still did not see fit to organize any rescue of the Jews though cognizant of the Nazi’s implementation of a plan for Jewish annihilation. Not until January 1944 did Roosevelt agree to establish the War Refugee Board, the rescue agency. Alas, too late…The tragic consequence of untold human suffering, mass murder and genocide of an entire people are still visible as manifested by the survivors, by the many memorial museums that have sprung up all over the world and by the vanished and devastated Jewish communities of Europe.
For decades now Jewish scholars and philosophers have struggled with the concept of “uniqueness” of the Holocaust. Internally, this characterization of the Holocaust affected both Jewish individual and group behavior and religious practice as well. In fact, the Holocaust became, for many Jews, the rationale for either or rejecting their faith. Its impact on Jews the world over and on the State of Israel in particular, has translated almost as an article of faith.
The world has become impatient and irritable with Jews using the Holocaust as a placard. The ritual of taking every foreign dignitary visiting Israel to the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem resulted sometimes in unpleasantness, as was the case with the German Chancellor Kohl who refused to don a cap on his head during the memorial service, in keeping with Jewish tradition. The policies of the State of Israel were often severely criticized even by its friends as being primarily nurtured by the “never again,” combative post-Holocaust psychology. This hypercritical attitude towards Jews is best illustrated by the discovered diary of the late 33rd president of the United States, the folksy and generally admired, Harry S. Truman. On July 21, 1947, after a ten minute telephone conversation with Henry Morgenthau Jr., he penned the following entry: “The Jews, I find are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslaves or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as DPs (displaced persons) as long as Jews get special treatment.” It should be noted that this entry was made only two years after WWII, when the ovens of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau hardly had time to cool off. Sara Bloomenfeld, director of the U.S. Holocaust memorial Museum, explained Truman’s comments as “typical of a sort of cultural anti-Semitism that was common at the time in all parts of American society. This was an acceptable way of talk.” For the historical record, it must be recalled that it was the same Truman who was the first among all other world figures to recognize the newly born state of Israel, literally minutes after its birth.
In the meantime, we ought to be more understanding and charitable toward the victims of “God’s wrath,” who resort to the “never again” slogan as the rationale for their existence. It is not only the leitmotif of Jews and Israelis. All Americans, and primarily the bereaved families, are determined to fathom the yet undisclosed intelligence which would bring some solace to their despair. Their aim is not so much the pointing of fingers as the assurance that never again shall this happen to our nation.
Lt. Kevin Shaefer, one of the victims of the attack on the Pentagon, was burned over half of his body and had only a fifty percent chance of survival. He underwent seventeen surgeries and suffered two near-fatal heart attacks. He was discharged from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center of December 14, 2001. He is now a staff member for the independent 9/11 Commission. He signs his e-mails “Never Forget.”
Indeed we were commanded to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, thou shalt not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:19). The often quoted American philosopher and poet, George Santayana, said it more gently: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.”
Dr. Solomon Goldman is Director of Department of Education, Emeritus of the Jewish National Fund of America.