There Is No Mystery

There Is No Mystery

Mini Teaser: A comment on the determined mystification of the Holocaust.

by Author(s): Arnold Beichman

"The profound, agonizing mystery of the Holocaust echoes through the generations . . ." So begins a recent New York Times review by Lawrence Van Gelder of an off-Broadway play, "The Gathering." Elie Wiesel says the Holocaust "can never be comprehended or transmitted." A Lexis-Nexis search, I'm sure, would find hundreds of couplings of "Holocaust" and "mystery." Often, a writer on the Holocaust will begin with "We will never understand . . ."

So what is this "mystery" of the Holocaust? We have no difficulty understanding the genocides traceable to Lenin or to Stalin; Adolf Hitler adapted with equally diabolical success their doctrinal contempt for the individual in the name of Utopia. The Stalin-ordered genocide of the Soviet peoples, anywhere from twenty to sixty million, is no mystery. Mao Tse-tung's slaughter of--who knows?--fifty million Chinese is no more of a mystery than is communist China's genocide in Tibet. There is no mystery about the killing fields of Southeast Asia where Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge murdered one-sixth of what had been a population of seven million. There is no mystery about Turkey's genocide of Armenians in the early part of the twentieth century. Of the fifteen million Afghans alive in 1978, more than a million are dead, thanks to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan two decades ago. There is certainly no mystery of Milosevic's killing of Kosovars, final figures not in yet. Why, supposedly, will we "never understand" Hitler's Holocaust?

I think it is time to stop defining the Holocaust as a "mystery." To call it such is to play into the hands of Holocaust-deniers and racists, and to Hitler himself, giving them an exculpatory dignity they do not deserve, as if they were tools, even victims, of some implacable destiny about which they could do nothing. How can we logically condemn what seemingly we cannot "comprehend"? Was the Shoah a natural disaster?

In reality, the Holocaust is not a "mystery", not even a pseudo-mystery as anybody who has watched Claude Lanzmann's nearly ten-hour documentary, "Shoah", knows. It is not a mystery as I learned when, as a ship news reporter in 1946, I used to go down to New York harbor to meet incoming ocean liners and one-time troop transports crammed with DPs (Displaced Persons was the euphemism in those days) who had survived Hitler's concentration camp universe. To the still beautiful Polish-Jewish woman I interviewed, who had been allowed to survive Auschwitz while her four young daughters had not, the Holocaust was no mystery at all.

The Holocaust was not the result of Adolf Hitler's random behavior. Mein Kampf offered a clue to Hitler's intentions--that he planned to exterminate the European Jews. The real mystery is why Hitler and his retinue were not taken seriously. As the historian Milton Himmelfarb has put it: No Hitler, no Holocaust. I think one could argue: No Stalin, no Mao, no Pol Pot, no genocide. These dictators used Marxism-Leninism as justification for mass slaughter of the "bourgeoisie" and "landlords", but in the end it was Stalin's personality that determined the Great Terror. The real mystery here is why at the height of the Great Terror Stalin, Mao and company had so many admirers among Western intellectuals.
It is certainly true that the Holocaust is unique, that, as Tony Judt has written, "there is no remotely comparable undertaking known to history, whether by intention, scale, methods, or outcome." But uniqueness does not a mystery make.

Now I will concede that if you are a practicing Jew, you might well ask: Why did God allow this calamity to overwhelm His "chosen people"? To that question, there are many, many answers, but the question remains. In Herman Wouk's fine novel, The Glory, about Israel's struggle to survive, one of the major characters, a General Barak, muses:

"We Jews are unique in history, that's plain. We lasted thirty centuries and more. Unless we're God's people, how come? But if we're God's people, why have we gone through such a thirty-century wringer of calamities? Have we really been all that sinful?"

To such questions, there is no answer unless you dare face the pronouncement of Primo Levi: "God cannot exist if Auschwitz exists." I think of Levi's words as I look at Nazi photographs of Jews being rounded up in Poland: the old men look like my father and the young boys, all with their hands up, look like me as a seven year-old. Every Jew knows that had he been living in Europe during World War II, he and his family would quite probably have died in a Nazi concentration camp.

True, Jews represent a peculiar case. No nationality has been persecuted for so long, for so many centuries as have the Jewish people, often with churchly sanction. In large part such persecution persists because of a politico-cultural phenomenon we call anti-Semitism, more crudely put, Jew-hatred. There is no such thing today or in history as, say, a global anti-Cambodianism or a global anti-Russianism that demands, for some doctrinal reason, that Cambodians or Russians must be killed because of their religion or national origin. No one has fabricated a document such as the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" alleging that an international conspiracy of, say, Canadians or Ukrainians wants to take over the world. Indeed, anti-Semitism has no territorial limits; it is to be found in most civilized countries including the United States. That is no secret or mystery.

Nor is there any impenetrable mystery about why the Allies, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, did nothing to stop the slaughter of the innocents during World War II. Statesmen who could have acted did nothing. They had weapons, they had armies, they had bombers, but not one bomb ever deliberately landed on a Nazi extermination camp. And, of course, after the camps had been emptied of the dead, the near-dead and the near-living in April 1945, it was much too late to do anything. The Holocaust is no mystery: Anti-Semitism leads to ghettos, concentration camps, torched synagogues and eventually to torched people. It always has.

Essay Types: Essay