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Monday, July 20, 2009



By Rabbi Avi Shafran

Never had the appearance of a word on a page so shocked me. It just made no sense. Those English letters, in that order, simply didn’t belong there.

It was nearly twenty years ago, in the library of a Jewish day school in Providence where I was teaching at the time. The word was “Holocaust” and it so discombobulated me because the book I had opened had been published in the late 1800s.

Even stranger, it was an English translation (likely the first one) of the Mishna, the backbone of the Talmud.

After a moment’s reflection on that fact, I realized I hadn’t gone mad. In context, the word was how the translator had rendered the Hebrew word “olah” – a sacrifice in the times of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple that, unlike all other offerings, was burnt in its entirety on the altar, without any portion set aside for human consumption. “Holo” in Greek means “entirely”; and “caust” means “burnt.”

Indeed, whoever first applied the word to what occurred on the European continent over the years 1939-1945 may well have chosen it because of its Jewish source. After all, the Third Reich aimed to rid the world of Jews, considering them the ultimate, mortal enemy of civilization. And, when all was tragically said and done, Hitler and his helpers in fact succeeded in murdering nearly two out of every three European Jews – if not an olah, staggeringly, devastatingly close.

Others, to be sure, were persecuted and killed by the Nazis too: Romani (Roma and Sinti peoples), political dissidents, criminals of various sorts, physically and mentally disabled people, Jehova’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Poles and Slavs.

But the “Endlösung” – the “Final Solution” – was for “der Judenfrage” – “the Jewish Question.” There was no “Romani Question” or “Homosexual Question.” The Nazis hated many types of people and for a variety of reasons, but they singled out only one group of people for utter destruction. The disabled and homosexuals were persecuted only in the Reich, not in territories the Nazis occupied. The Romani, in the words of historian Alex Grobman, “did not have to be annihilated completely.” That was a fate reserved for the Jews alone.

Even in his final moments, Hitler obsessed over the Jews, charging his followers shortly before his suicide to demonstrate “merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples, international Jewry.”

Thus there were no speeches like the Reich Organization Leader’s 1939 “The Jews or Us” (“There is no room in the world for the Jews any more. The Jew or us, one of us will have to go”) about Poles. No book like 1937’s “The Eternal Jew” (which sought to graphically portray Jews as sub-human) about Slavs. No “Mein Kampf” ravings about the “peril” posed by the disabled. And no issues of Der Sturmer on newsstands with the motto “The homosexuals are our misfortune!” on the cover page.

There is a reason, in other words, why the Holocaust is most readily associated with the destruction of European Jewry, why the Berlin Holocaust memorial – the monument that stands in the maw from which the Holocaust emerged – is called Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas – the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.”

It shows no insensitivity to any of the groups that suffered under the Third Reich to appreciate the straightforward fact that only one was identified as a noxious threat to humanity itself; that only one was targeted for total genocide – both within and without Germany’s borders; that none suffered the loss of life that the Third Reich inflicted upon the Jewish people.
And yet, maintaining the special linkage of the Holocaust to Jews is becoming politically incorrect.

The recent controversy surrounding the Holocaust Memorial Mall in Sheepshead Bay is a case in point. It already bears an inscription recognizing other victims of Nazi persecution, including homosexuals. But an active member of a “gay synagogue” campaigned for a more prominent set of stone markers recognizing Nazi victims others than Jews. When the city acceded, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind protested what he saw as a subtle devaluing of the special nature of the Jewish people’s singular targeting by the Nazis.

Mr. Hikind was subsequently taken to task by, among others, the New York City Council Speaker and the mayor. More recently, two candidates for a City Council seat attacked a third one for the sin of having been endorsed by Mr. Hikind. One of the candidates intoned that he “would never compromise my principles by having an endorsement like that,” and labeled “outrageous” the contention that, as he put it, “there are two classes of victims in the Holocaust.” A writer in the Jerusalem Post went so far as to compare the assemblyman’s stance to Holocaust denial.

No one, though, is denying many groups suffered, and greatly, under the Nazis. But if there is any subtle denial in the air these days, if anything delicately desecrates the history of the Holocaust, it is the reluctance of some to recognize a profound and qualitative difference. The difference between the Nazis’ persecution of political enemies and “social misfits” – and the visceral, genocidal loathing they reserved for the Jews.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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