Notes on a visit to Yad Vashem

Two quotations from the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem have stayed in my mind. The first is by Heinrich Heine: “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (“Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”)

On 10 May 1933 there was a night of book-burning at the Opernplatz in Berlin. Communist and socialist literature went into the fire, but it was mostly books by Jewish authors that were consigned to the flames. Ten years later human beings who happened to be Jewish were being cremated at Auschwitz and other extermination camps.

Anti-semitism was not a new phenomenon, by any means. And here the Christian church has much to answer for. Centuries-old anti-semitism provided fertile soil for Hitler’s racist ideology. And in many European countries which came under Nazi control, anti-semitic feeling meant that Jews could be harassed, put into ghettoes and transported to extermination camps without any hindrance from the local population.

One of the horrific things I learned at Yad Vashem today (Thursday 17 October) was that the massacres of Jews outside cities were not isolated incidents. Four special units of German troops had the task of rounding up and shooting Jews in the wake of the Wehrmacht’s advance into Russia.

I knew about the Warsaw Ghetto, of course, and recognised the photo of a boy with hands raised when confronted by a German patrol. But I hadn’t realised how many ghettoes there were in smaller cities and towns, as well as in Lodz, the second largest city in Poland.

I also recognised another image: emaciated men lying in crowded wooden bunks in Auschwitz. A picture conveys a great deal, but I think one has to read first-hand accounts of survivors of the concentration camps in order to begin to grasp the horror of that man-made hell on earth.

I imagine that the relatively quick death of those who went straight into the gas chambers might have been preferable to the hard labour and slow starvation that others suffered.

Then there were the “death marches” towards the end of the war. The Nazis forced the inmates of concentration camps to march hundreds of miles to avoid them being found in the camps by the advancing allied armies. Only a minority of those who set out survived the long march.

The end of the war did not mean an end to the suffering of the Jews. The few who survived Hitler’s “Endlosung” (“final solution”) and returned to their homes were often unwelcome. They had been at home in Europe for centuries but were clearly no longer welcome (if they ever had been). The local population, especially in Poland, were so hostile that many Jews sought refuge elsewhere. But they then discovered that they weren’t really welcome anywhere. The few countries, such as Australia and Canada, which were open to immigrants, gave preference to non-Jews.

One ship carrying Jewish refugees was turned away at Havana, in spite of the fact that many of those on board had visas for entry into Cuba. They were also unable to gain entry to the USA and had to return to Europe. The Jewish passengers faced being returned to Germany. Only at the last moment did a few countries, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and the UK, relent and allow limited numbers of Jews to immigrate.

After the war many Jews were incarcerated in displaced persons camps until somewhere was found for them to settle. Those who made their way to Israel did so illegally so long as Israel was still under British control. Many were stopped as they attempted to enter Israel and taken to displaced persons camps in Cyprus or even back in Germany. Only when the state of Israel was established in 1948 was it possible for them to enter their new homeland legally.

One section of the museum at Yad Vashem was, understandably, devoted to the foundation of the state of Israel. However, it was noticeable that there was no mention of the local indigenous Palestinian population.

I made a mental note of a second quote:  A country is not only what it does but also what it tolerates.” (Kurt Tucholsky)

In most of the countries occupied by the Nazis, there was little opposition to the extermination of the Jews. In the Netherlands many individuals and families gave vital help to Jewish neighbours, but so far as I’m aware there wasn’t any concerted resistance to the Nazi’s transportation of thousands of Jews to the gas chambers.

Where there was concerted resistance, it was remarkably successful. In the course of three months Danish citizens took thousands of Jews in small boats to safety in Sweden.

Bulgaria was not actually occupied by Nazi Germany, but as an ally was forced to agree to deport the Jewish inhabitants. The Deputy Speaker of the parliament gained the support of other parliamentarians in petitioning the government to postpone the deportation, although trains were already standing ready. When the government, under pressure from the Nazis, felt that they could postpone the deportation no longer, two Orthodox Church leaders went to the king, who ordered that the deportation be cancelled altogether.

I hope that André Trocmé and the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon are as well-known as they should be. André Trocmé was the protestant pastor of this village in eastern France. He led the villagers in harbouring hundreds of Jews and enabling many to escape to Switzerland.

Serious violence can be overcome by nonviolent resistance – or what my German pastor friend, Martin Arnold, calls “goodness-power”. But it may take a great deal of courage.

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