The pain is still searing and sharp. In some ways it is even getting worse. For the world seems to have learned very little from our experience indeed from the experience of mankind as a whole; Martin Buber said that with the Sho’ah the entire “order of being” went awry.
Whom shall we blame for the tragedy? There are questions we address to God. There are also questions for human beings. One of these questions is suggested by a Talmudic comment on the Torah reading of Sh’mini.
The sidra tells of a plunge from triumph to tragedy. Aaron has just been inducted into office. Two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu, step forward and bring “strange fire” onto the altar. They are summarily struck dead. But, say the sages, Aaron had other sons. Were their hands any cleaner? Maybe not.
The Talmud says: “Happy are the righteous! Not only do they acquire merit, but they bestow merit upon their children and children’s children to the end of all generations. For Aaron had several sons who deserved to be burnt like Nadav and Avihu, as it is said, ‘They that were left (to survive)’ (Lev. 10:12), but the merit of their father helped. Woe unto the wicked! Not alone do they render themselves guilty, but they bestow guilt upon their children and children’s children unto the end of all generations.” (Yoma 87a)
The Holocaust was a plunge from triumph to tragedy, from sophisticated civilisation to primitive savagery. Did the brothers and sisters of the perpetrators share in the guilt?
Let us take another analogy, from ancient Egypt. Did the ordinary Egyptians support Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites?
Since it was not a democracy they were not consulted. They had to go along with the policies of their king. Any sense of outrage or compassion was overcome by the euphemisms in which royal policies were clothed. As Nachmanides says, all was “done cleverly so that the crime should not be known”.
Move to the 20th century. The Nazis also clothed their plans in euphemisms - “special treatment”, “resettlement”, “solution of the Jewish question”. They were masters of manipulation by words. The difference was that Germany was ostensibly a democracy, as were so many other countries.
In theory you could protest if you saw what was happening and still had a conscience. But protest was limited. Out of fear? Out of the prejudice that lay beneath the civilised surface?
The brothers and sisters of the perpetrators cannot escape a share in the guilt. Unlike the brothers of Nadav and Avihu, their moral patrimony was not strong enough to excuse them.
This does not imply that every German deserves punishment, but every German bears part of the guilt. They can only rise above it by constantly insisting upon democracy, decency and human dignity on every level.
The problem however is not limited to the German nation. Other nations were the brothers and sisters of the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Is their moral patrimony as powerful as that of Nadav and Avihu’s brothers?
Not if they go along with suppression of a religion here or an ethnic group there, and are taken in by verbal contortions like “ethnic cleansing”. The only kosher ethnic cleansing is when an ethnic group is ashamed of itself and atones for its acts and attitudes.
Until then, it seems that nothing has been learned from the Holocaust. And there are nations all over the world that still share in the guilt.