Letter to the editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 September, 1989.
September marks the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, which left such a trail of havoc and horror all over Europe, and traumatically influenced the whole of modern history.
For Jews, World War II has come to be known by the additional name of the Holocaust because of the searing suffering caused by the Nazis’ brutal smashing of millions of lives, and the wanton destruction of peaceful communities whose only wish was to serve God unmolested in the way that their conscience dictated.
Yet many years have now passed. Even the most decent and fair-minded of people might surely become impatient and ask: “Surely this Holocaust occurred a long time ago; why can’t you forgive and forget and free yourselves from your obsession with it all?”
The answer is that the experience has left such a permanent mark on the Jewish psyche, such a searing pain in the Jewish soul, that to suggest it be erased is to ask the impossible, the unthinkable.
Never has there been such a catastrophe. Never has there been such a deliberate, cold-blooded campaign to eradicate an entire people – without exception, escape, exoneration, immunity, compassion, appeal or redress.
Countless families are still inconsolably grief-stricken and bereft. Many of the survivors still suffer the nightmares; with some the pain is getting worse and not better.
Even those fortunate enough to be less personally involved continue to be outraged at the jungle-like ferocity that brought to a sudden end over a thousand years of proud, dignified Jewish history and culture on the continent of Europe, wiping scholars, sages and saints, and great centres of piety and learning, off the face of the earth.
“Jewish history and consciousness,” declares Abba Eban, “will be dominated for many generations by the traumatic memories of the Holocaust. No people in history has undergone an experience of such violence and depth.
“Israel’s obsession with physical security; the sharp Jewish reaction to movements of discrimination and prejudice; an intoxicated awareness of life, not as something to be taken for granted but as a treasure to be fostered and nourished with eager vitality; a residual distrust of what lies beyond the Jewish wall; a mystic belief in the undying forces of Jewish history, which ensure survival when all appears lost; all these together with the intimacy of more personal pains and agonies, are the legacy which the Holocaust transmits to the generation of Jews grown up under its shadow.”
If you ask me, I readily admit to having an obsession with the Holocaust. And that obsession – someone inelegantly called it “Holocaustomania” – has hold of Jews everywhere and will not let them go.
But the Holocaust is not just a Jewish concern. Its dimensions are universal.
The Very Reverend James Parks Morton of the Cathedral of St John the Divine, in New York, said: “Auschwitz was the single most important event of the 20th century, paradigm of the advanced, intellectual, industrial, technological society gone to hell.”
Never was there such a confrontation between the two diametrically opposed world views; as Jacob Talman expresses it: “Between morality and paganism; between the sanctity of life and the cult of warfare; between the equality of all men and the supremacy of the selected few; between the search for truth and the discharge of instinctive impulses; between the vision of a genuine society of equals and the prospect of a society of masters lording it over slaves.”
A review of Walter Laquer’s book, The Terrible Secret, posed this question: “From where, if not from the Holocaust, a premonition of the death rattle of the thermonuclear age, can come the testimony and warning that man is capable of the worst as he is capable of the best, that through madness or blindness, he may transform the planet into a crematorium?”
The Holocaust starkly confronts our generation with the paradigm of what can happen if man does not see in his fellow the face of a brother man; if, instead of using the new means of communication as media for dialogue, man blatantly or subliminally peddles lies and distorts the truth; if man would rather see the whole world destroyed than rejoice to see other people peacefully inhabit their own little corner in the sun…
That is why human beings everywhere should develop an obsession with the Holocaust if they value their future. That is why there should not be less Holocaustomania but more. That is why, as it has been said: “We are compelled to ask not only ourselves, but those around us, ‘What do you think of the Holocaust?’ In our answers will be found the ultimate fate of the human race.”
Rabbi Raymond Apple
The Great Synagogue,