Up until now we reviewed some aspects of the unprecedented and unique nature of the Holocaust. In this part we will further explore those qualities, as well as others that have precedents in human history, and the implications of both. Why is it important to try to discern what is new to the consciousness of people during the Shoah? Perhaps most saliently, understanding how events unfolded and how they were perceived goes to the heart of any discussion about response during the Holocaust – of Jews and others. The unprecedented aspects of events certainly influenced decisions on many levels.
Neighbors Killing Their Neighbors
If Auschwitz and the other similar camps represent something new in the Holocaust, there are other aspects of the persecution and murder of the Jews that are as old as human history itself. The first murder in the Judeo-Christian consciousness is that of brother killing brother, Cain killing Abel. Throughout history brother has murdered brother, and neighbors have murdered their neighbors. Throughout the Nazi period ethnic, religious and political tensions erupted violently among various groups in the crucible of the war and its immediate aftermath as a result of local long-term relations; yet the phenomenon of neighbors frequently rising up against their Jewish neighbors was not restricted to one locality but was a widespread phenomenon, especially in Eastern Europe.
Today, the most well-known, infamous incident of Jews being murdered by their neighbors occurred in Jedwabne in Poland in the summer of 1941, when Poles burned alive the Jews of their town in a barn. There is a substantial literature that argues about many of the details, but it is clear that in that town, non-Jewish Poles played a significant role in the murder of their Jewish neighbors.
Jedwabne may be a case in point, but, it was not an isolated incident. In different ways, and in many times and places during the Holocaust, Jews died at the hands of people who knew them and had often lived with them for generations. Neighbors murdered their Jewish neighbors for many reasons: racial hatred, religious hatred, ultra-nationalism, revenge for supposed Jewish crimes under the Communist occupation, and not the least, greed. Some of these motivations are quite ordinary and timeless, whereas others are rooted more in the specifics of time and place; they all burst forth due to the presence and influence of, and the atmosphere created by, Nazi Germany.
The intimate face of murder happened not only in the Holocaust, but in other genocides as well. For instance, it is a central theme in Rwanda, where the Tutsi and Hutu lived among each other. Testimonies of some of survivors in Rwanda are eerily reminiscent of those of some Jewish Holocaust survivors. Clearly, the human suffering in all genocides has a great deal in common, and scholars are trying very hard to uncover the common elements of genocide in the hope, among others, that this will help prevent future genocides. But no less important is discerning the differences between each case. It is only by looking at commonalities and differences that we may learn. However, there is no place for comparing or grading human suffering and moral breakdown.
Yad Vashem and the Specific and Universal Implications
Regarding commemoration, education, research and resource collection, Yad Vashem's charge is to deal with the Holocaust. That means that the persecution of Jews, the experiences of Jews, attitudes toward Jews, how Jews reacted and responded to their reality, as well as the help given or not given to the Jews, lie at the heart of Yad Vashem's activities. This is Yad Vashem's area of expertise and what Yad Vashem can bring to the table regarding scholarly and public discussion about genocide, and about other issues such as stereotyping, conspiracy theories, and more.
Clearly when it comes to trying to understand the Holocaust and teach about it in wider contexts, serious engagement with all the victims of the Nazis and their partners, and the subject of genocide is crucial. Sadly, it has become fashionable to accuse Yad Vashem of willful narrow-mindedness and refusal to address these wider contexts. Those who purport to be knowledgeable about what happens at Yad Vashem apparently are not as well informed as they could be. Or perhaps they are more interested in making points with certain political cliques or intellectual circles than in trying to really grapple with understanding the place of the Holocaust in broader contexts, including that of an age of genocide.
The Holocaust, like all historical events, is a specific event with its own context. At its core it is a particular event with Jews at its vortex, who were lethally persecuted by Nazi Germany and its partners because they embodied “the Jewish Spirit” that had to be exorcised. It has many consequences for those individuals and groups who experienced it. It has profound ramifications for the Jews as a collective, because it drastically changed the Jewish world and deeply wounded Jewish culture. Thus, it played and plays an important role in the shaping of post-Holocaust Jewish consciousness and behavior. Among the nations, societies, organizations and groups that perpetrated the Holocaust, there are particular implications as well, that some have grappled with more openly and honestly than others. This Jewish dimension should not be downplayed and marginalized. Yet because of its enormity and unusual dimensions and characteristics the Holocaust bears also universal implications. It is also about the broader crime of genocide, and ultimately, it is about human beings, giving us much to ponder about the most fundamental questions regarding humanity, inhumanity, empathy, acting and indifference, and good and evil.