Without interpretation, the world’s greatest art is little more than a lot of pretty pictures. Similarly, absent interpretation and thoughtful reflection, history is not much more than a litany of names and dates.
This month, we are marking many anniversaries. The end of the Second World War in Europe. The liberation of the last Nazi concentration camps. The beginning of Soviet-versus-Western tensions and proxy wars that lasted decades.
In some ways, we cannot begin to comprehend the Holocaust, or the world’s reaction to it, without reflecting on a different anniversary we mark this month. It was 60 years ago this week – May 11, 1960 – that Mossad operatives captured Adolf Eichmann, a prime architect of the Holocaust. The astonishing operation, which amazes observers even today with its bizarre twists and chutzpah on an international scale, stands out as a turning point in the way the world – Jews especially – view Holocaust history.
Holocaust survivors themselves understood the particularity of the Holocaust, while much of the world perceived the millions of Jewish lives lost as a part of the larger war casualties, not qualitatively different from the deaths of citizens of Dresden or Coventry or Stalingrad. It should need not be said that every human life lost is a tragedy. But, from the perspective of historical meaning, the murder of Jews, Roma, people with disabilities, homosexuals and others targeted for identities unrelated to the national conflicts, must be understood apart from the tragic consequences of war.
This is the consensus position today – that the Holocaust paralleled the Second World War but was substantively and morally different from broader contemporary events. This consensus emerged to a great extent from the Eichmann capture and trial.
Eichmann was living in Argentina, so confident in his security that, in retrospect, his subterfuge was minimal. Once tipped off, the Mossad had little trouble locating him.
Eichmann’s legendary defence, that he was merely following orders, was dismissed by the Israeli court. Whatever moral or military defence that argument posited was defied by the facts. Eichmann, according to eyewitnesses and documentary evidence, did far more than follow orders. He enthusiastically fulfilled directives beyond the letter or spirit of the command.
When the trial began, in 1961, it was said that one could walk through Tel Aviv and hear the proceedings on radio through every open window. The implications of the Eichmann trial for the world’s understanding of this history, and for Israeli and Jewish consciousness, was revolutionary.
Even among families that included survivors, or who had lost entire branches of the family tree, the historical context of the Holocaust was nebulous until this time. The small amount of survivor testimony that had emerged immediately after the war had largely dissipated, in part because the public did not want to face the most grotesque evidence of human depravity and because, in many cases, the survivors chose to sublimate their experiences and attempt to rebuild and move on with their lives.
It was only in the minutiae of the evidence at trial, the mind-boggling precision, industrial-style execution of diabolical plans and indescribable sadism of the Nazi war against Jews that people began to understand both the quantitative and the qualitative nature of the Shoah.
In addition to gaining insights into what their parents or other survivors might have experienced, younger Jews and Israelis intuited from the evidence a larger realization about their people. According to some historians, an idea persisted in the years after 1945 that the Jews of Europe had gone silently – “like sheep,” in the dehumanizing terminology too often employed – to their deaths.
Gaining an understanding of the inescapable precision and indefatigable determination of the Nazis to identify and murder every single Jew in their realm, younger Jews and Israelis came to know that their lost civilization did not go willingly. Indeed, among the earliest memorializations of the Holocaust – including here in Vancouver – were commemorations of the bravery and resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The nuances of the historical record were enriched by this knowledge, with implications for the self-identity of Jews everywhere. The extent of the cataclysm was a result of the homicidal tenacity of the Nazis and their collaborators, not of the responses of their victims.
The Eichmann trial opened a floodgate. The contemporary era of Holocaust history, including survivor memoirs and public discussion of that time, really began then. A decade later, this new understanding led to a backlash of Holocaust denial and revisionism which, in turn, inspired yet more survivors to speak out to correct and add to the record.
Today, we struggle to keep this history alive and to challenge its diminishment and misuse. Even among well-intentioned people who would never mean to belittle this history, there is a tendency to invoke it in situations that by no measure are comparable.
Additionally, especially in Europe, public opinion polls reveal that there is a fatigue around the subject. In many countries, pluralities or even majorities say that too much attention is paid to the Holocaust. Incongruously, the same polls indicate that it is in countries where ignorance of this history is most pronounced that citizens contend there is too much focus on it. Try to square those results.
We always view the past through the changing lens of the present. We have seen transformations in the understanding of and responses to Holocaust history for 75 years now. One of the challenges of our generation and successive ones is to be active in addressing these changing perceptions and interpretations. Our desire to continue to delve into this difficult experience and our people’s enduring trauma cannot depend on other people’s ignorance or assessment of what’s considered “too much” or “too in the past.” Our obligation, as carriers of this knowledge and witnesses to the survivors, is to glean the lessons of the past that improve the future and help strengthen our community and our societies. We will continue to do this work and to honour our ancestors. And we will continue to share what we know to be true, as we search for ways to make “Never again” a reality.