What Might we Learn from the Holocaust?

Lecturer: Elly Dlin

Lecture 12: what might we learn from the Holocaust?

I suggest that in order to answer this question, our last in this series for JUICE, we need to push questions that are more general in nature. We might usefully ask first: DOES THE HOLOCAUST TEACH ANY LESSONS AT ALL? 

And since the Holocaust is a part of human history maybe we should begin with general questions: DOES HISTORY TEACH LESSONS? ARE THERE INHERENT MEANINGS IN ANY PERIOD OR PAST EVENT?

Many historians, educators, politicians, etc. certainly seem to think so. In fact I suspect that some may even be surprised by the question. Heavily influenced by the spirit of positivism (August Comte et al; see for example Fritz Stern, ed., Varieties of History. From Voltaire to the Present, London: Macmillan, 1956) these people assume that the purpose of reading history is to try to discover the general laws of human development and behaviour. By means of induction and through the use of historical analogies they hope to be able to discern universal laws that can be used to guide us in the present and the future.

If their discoveries are not exact enough to tell us what we should be doing then at least they can be used to caution us about what NOT to do. Forewarned is forearmed or, as E. H. Carr puts it:

One reason why history rarely repeats itself among historically conscious people is that the dramatis personae are aware at the second performance of the denouement of the first, and their action is affected by that knowledge. (from What is History?, Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1961.)

Carr puts it bluntly: history does not teach anything at all. For if history were to teach, then everyone who read it would "learn the lessons of history", i.e. the same lessons, the ones that are inherent within that particular piece of history. Yet experience tells us that that is not the case. The French Revolution means something different in Paris, France than it does in Paris, Texas. The lessons of the Russian Revolution are different when taught in Moscow or Minneapolis or Mozambique. In fact the lessons of October 1917 are different in Moscow of 1998 than they were in Moscow of 1978 or 1918. The facts are unchanged so what is different? The PEOPLE! We change. We develop. The lessons that we choose to elicit from historical events are context-bound.

So the first observation is NOT that history teaches but rather that people CAN or MAY learn from history and that different people are going to learn different lessons from the very same historical events.

Again I will take a Russian example that is familiar to all who remember "doublespeak" from George Orwell's "1984" (or Huxley's "Brave New World" or Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle"). Leon Trotsky, Commissar of the Red Army and hero of the revolution is later exiled, declared an enemy and his very image is airbrushed out of photographs. Lenin is revered in one generation but his statues are demolished by another as Leningrad becomes St. Petersburg once again. Historical encyclopedia are "updated" on a regular basis to reflect current realities, conceptions, trends and fashions (as for example when a society "discovers" the roles of workers, women or minorities in history). 

Societies design and reshape their own histories or, as Carr puts it, each generation writes its own history. (Pieces of this argument were presented in lectures 8 and 10, especially the examples of Christmas and the Queen's Birthday.)


The cynical answer is that people seem to be able to learn almost anything and everything from the Holocaust. Take the example of Rabbi Joel Teittelboim, the Satmar Rav who survived the War in Hungary until he escaped in July 1944. He nearly became a victim of the Holocaust and shortly thereafter he wrote a book called VA-YOEL MOSHE (Moses Was Gracious). In it he presents what he sees to be the lesson of the Holocaust.

Relying on the reward and punishment model that is used so often by fundamentalists, he asks what was the cardinal sin committed by the Jewish people that was so severe and so serious as to have called forth the Divine punishment of the Holocaust? To the surprise of no one familiar with the
views of the Satmar Hasidim, his answer is that it was the sin of Zionism. G-d promised to return the Jewish people to their homeland but instead of patiently waiting for the Messiah to be sent to them, Jews took it upon themselves to return themselves to the Land of Israel. This was surely a sign of their lack of faith, of their distrust in G-d. They abandoned Him in order to try to create an anti-religious socialist regime in the Land. They went against His Will, and for that were punished with the Holocaust. Adolf Hitler was G-d's Divine instrument to teach the Jews the evils of Zionism.

This "lesson" is categorically contrasted with that of another Hungarian Hassidic Rabbi - Issachar Teichthal - who published his book, EM LA-BANIM SMECHAH or The Mother of Sons is Happy, in Budapest in 1943 (see Pesach Schindler, RABBI ISSACHAR TEICHTHAL ON HURBAN AND REDEMPTION in TRADITION 21:3, Fall 1984, pp. 63-78).

Teichtal uses the very same Jewish texts and sources to prove the very opposite lesson. He argues that throughout Jewish tradition and liturgy G-d is constantly calling, even begging His children to return home to their Land. But the Jews were stubborn; they did not listen. They did not heed His call and they remained steadfast in their attachment to exile. Unwilling to respond to the positive pull, G-d changed his tactics and used the negative push. He caused the Holocaust to happen in order to beat the Jews out of Europe and to get them to go home. In this view Adolf Hitler remains a Divine instrument of punishment sent to the world to make the Holocaust but it is in order to teach Jews to cease being deaf to the call of Zionism.

More contradictory historical lessons could hardly be found and it is sharpened by the strong similarities in the backgrounds of both men. Rabbis, Hassidim, Hungarian, living and suffering in the Second World War, writing and publishing in the 1940s prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. (Unlike Teittelboim, Teichtal does not escape but was deported and killed in Auschwitz.)

The Satmar, sworn enemies of Zionism long before Hitler and the Holocaust appeared on the scene, see the lesson of the Holocaust as the sin of Zionism. Nitra Hasidim in general and Rabbi Teichthal in particular were much more positively disposed to Zionism in the first place and so it is not altogether surprising that he might take an opposite position. 


Let's take a second paired example. Emil Fackenheim, Reform Rabbi in Berlin and Toronto before coming to The Hebrew University to teach Jewish Philosophy, articulated what he sees to be the 614th mitzvah - to be more steadfast in one's Jewishness. His argument is that assimilation threatens and weakens the Jewish people and helps to make it disappear. Unlike every other people who suffered losses during the Second World War but who have subsequently become more numerous than they were before 1939, there are significantly FEWER Jews alive today than there were before the War. And every single Jewish community today (outside of the State of Israel) is suffering NEGATIVE population growth. 

The Jewish people are shrinking. Should their numbers drop below that critical minimum necessary to sustain dynamic and creative communal life, then they could disappear from the world - as have so  many other peoples and cultures in the past.

He asks the question: Did Hitler lose the War? If his prime motivation was the destruction and physical disappearance of the Jewish people from the world, then the issue has not, as yet, been settled. Jews who assimilate after the Holocaust are in fact aiding Hitler to destroy the Jewish people. Their removal from the Jewish collective is a posthumous victory for Hitler. Fackenheim is determined to prevent Hitler from ultimately triumphing over us. So he articulated the 614th mitzvah: to remain Jewish because Hitler did not want you to be one, to stay Jewish and to have kids who continue to be Jewish. 

This lesson may be contrasted with thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe who learned a very different lesson from the Holocaust. They learned that it is dangerous to be Jewish; that being Jewish can threaten your life. 

So IF they managed to fool the Nazis and to survive the Holocaust by somehow securing / buying / manufacturing / stealing false paper that testified that they were Christians and IF that were good enough to fool the murderous antisemites into sparing their lives, THEN these false identities should  be maintained and the ruse continued. If they were good enough to save these Jews from the gas chambers once then hopefully they will work again the next time that antisemites come to murder them or their offspring. The lesson that these Jews learned from the Holocaust was that it is dangerous to be a Jew and far safer and healthier to pass oneself off as a Christian. Successful assimilation may save your children's lives.

Does the Holocaust teach the evils of assimilation or its virtues? It may largely depend on who you are!


The Jews of Lithuania were presented with a dilemma in the summer of 1941. Do they enter the Nazi ghettos as ordered or do they try to escape in to the Lithuanian countryside?

Jews who had an historical memory might have looked at the lessons of the First World War, i.e. the last time that a German army conquered Lithuania. They remembered violent pogroms during which Jews were attacked and killed. Not by German soldiers mind you, but by local antisemites. Lithuanians took advantage of the chaos of War to "settle accounts" with their Jewish neighbours. And many Lithuanian Jews were killed. Their only protectors "in the First World War" was the German Army. The German Army arrested and executed pogromists for the crime of attacking Jews. Not out of a love of Israel but rather for very pragmatic reasons: the War was continuing and they wanted to send the maximum number of German soldiers to the Front, and not leave needed troops behind to be policemen; the efficient exploitation of Lithuania for the war effort demanded tranquillity not vigilante street violence; and disturbances that initially focused on Jews might potentially shift over and turn against the occupiers. Therefore violence could not be tolerated and pogroms must be repressed.

Now, 26 years later, there is another war and the German Army are again the conquerors. Who does the Lithuanian Jew fear most and who does he look to for a bit of protection? What does he do when the Germans impose a policy of ghettoization and explain it on the basis of the need to separate the populations?

We know that the highest percentages of Jewish victims in the Holocaust were in those countries where the Nazis succeeded in ghettoizing the highest percentages of Jews. Almost all Lithuanian Jews were in ghettoes and almost all Lithuanian Jews were murdered (nearly 90%). French Jews were never put in to ghettoes and 75% of them survived. We know that ghettoes were a key stage in the road to the final solution, but we know that because we know the whole story. We know what happens after 1941. The Lithuanian Jews who had to act at that moment did NOT know what was yet to happen in the future. They looked at what they knew from the past and implemented the lesson that
they had learned. And it was lethal..


At a news conference on April 18, 1985, American President Ronald Reagan said:

I think that there is nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps. (Quoted in Geoffrey Hartman, BITBURG IN MORAL AND POLITICAL PERSPECTIVE)

Again I ask you to recall Orwell, Huxley and Vonnegut. Control of the past by shaping our collective memories has a tremendous impact in defining the issues of the day and shaping how we think about them in the present. It also goes a long way towards setting the agendas and options for the future. (Four legs good, two legs bad/better.)

The antisemites know that too. It is not by chance that the largest antisemitic organization in Russia is called PAMYAT which means "memory". That is why Holocaust Deniers exert so much effort. It is not to revise or "to correct" the historical record. It is hard to believe that so much passion and hate could be generated over events that happened so many years ago. They are dedicated to influencing the present and shaping the future (see lecture #11).

WHAT MIGHT WE LEARN FROM THE HOLOCAUST? is the subject of this final presentation in a series entitled TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE HOLOCAUST.

I trust that I have made my positions sufficiently clear particularly with lecture #4 that highlighted the lessons I feel should be learned in the sphere of the perpetrators: WHY DID WE KILL?, lessons on the bystanders: WHY DID WE ALLOW THE KILLING TO HAPPEN? (lecture #5), lessons on the victims: WHY WERE WE KILLED? (lecture #6) and several other pieces in this series (lecture #7, Can the Holocaust be Explained?).

History is often referred to as "a seemless web" and I have come to regard that web as having many more holes than solid strands. History is often a jigsaw puzzle in which most of the pieces are missing. It is perhaps more like astronomy than any other human pursuit in that we look at those few pieces of old light, produced long ago and far away, that have managed to have come down to us without getting lost. We speculate about their origins and true meanings. We ponder the degree to which our evidence has been filtered or distorted. And we use our imaginations to "fill in the blanks".

History is also about power and who shapes the stories. Not to exaggerate, I still feel the need to conclude by quoting an African proverb that says: "Until lions get their own storytellers, all hunting tales will glorify men." 

The ultimate source of our learning and teaching is us. And if we do it with balance, sensitivity and a critical eye chance are we will be doing something right. 





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07 Jul 2008 / 4 Tamuz 5768 0