International Holocaust Remembrance Day: when violence becomes a way of life

Jan 29, 2023

The Canberra Times

“Touring Israel and Palestine in 2014 as a guest of the Australian Jewish Affairs Council, and then again two years later with the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, the question I kept asking people was, how does this end, ever? Nobody even pretended to put forward a workable solution,” writes Mark Kenny.

By Mark Kenny

Friday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, designated as such by the UN to mark the moment in 1945 when Auschwitz-Birkenau was finally liberated – the Holocaust’s most notorious death camp.

The Holocaust of course, did not begin in the death factories of Eastern Europe, that’s just where it reached peak evil, genocidal murder on an industrial scale.

It began in the working class fringes as demagogues fanned outsider resentment and the easy politics of otherism. It went national – then mainstream – with the election of Adolf Hitler in 1933. All levels of society bought in.

What makes the Holocaust so sinister and yet terrifyingly comprehensible, was how deeply its enactment became woven into German identity. And how acceptable its methods were for resolving the so-called “Jewish question”.

While there were resisters, courageous anti-Nazi dissidents, the Holocaust was enabled by civil society and its disgusting methods were exported to the Third Reich’s vassal states like Slovakia and Hungary.

At the beginning of WWII, there were some 9 million Jews in Europe, and by the end, less than 3 million. The balance had been murdered.

Murdered by a colossal evil seeded in casual racism and advanced in increments through flag-waving nationalism to the most toxic of hatreds.

It is hard to imagine such fanaticism now, yet it still exists.

Antisemitism remains rife, as does its corollary, anti-Islamism.

One reason all this is front of mind is an excellent new book by the British writer, Jonathan Freedland, called The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Tell the World.

Freedland tells the astonishing story of the 19-year-old Rudolf Vrba who was convinced that if just one Jew could get out of this secret facility located deep in occupied Poland, it would all be stopped.

No way, Vrba reasoned, would democratic countries allow a whole people to be annihilated. And no way either, would Jews themselves, including children be willing to board trains and disembark at the other end, often traipsing directly into the gas chambers.

Hundreds of thousands of Hungary’s Jews had not yet been transported and Vrba, who possessed a photographic memory, was desperate to get word to them before they boarded the trains.

The account of Vrba’s escape with a fellow prisoner, Fred Wetzler is gripping and utterly inspiring.

But among the most chilling new details is how fundamentally misplaced Vrba’s faith in the persuasive power of facts, turned out to be.

What he found was that few people of influence believed the young men’s accounts of gas chambers and crematoria working 24 hours a day.

Not the Jewish leadership in Slovakia, not the Catholic Church to whom they appealed, not the British, who along with the Americans did nothing, deciding it was not practical to bomb the rail lines heading into the giant killing complex.

Right on cue, a new Ken Burns series started last Tuesday on SBS, The US and the Holocaust which shows the callous disregard for the Jews of Europe by most Americans – a moral failure few care to remember.

Another resonance with the perils of toxic nationalism right now though is the slide towards authoritarianism in Israel itself and the occupied West Bank presently under the harsh new Netanyahu government.

Described as “a coalition of the most extreme right-wing and religious parties in the history of the state” by Boaz Atzili, a scholar of International Relations at the American University School of International Service, Netanyahu’s administration is showing scant regard for world opinion as its lurches further towards religious intolerance, taunting Palestinians at the Temple Mount (as Jews call the site known as the al-Aqsa Mosque to Muslims) and tearing at the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.

Violence over the last month has escalated dangerously in the last 48 hours as 9 people were killed in a raid on the West Bank refugee camp in Jenin during a joint Shin Bet-Israeli Defence Force operation.

Voice of America called that “the deadliest Israeli raid in the West Bank in years”.

The coming weeks are tipped to be even more dangerous.

Violence begets violence. Seven Israelis were killed and another 10 wounded at a synagogue on the outskirts of Jerusalem in retaliation to the Jenin raid. Hamas and Islamic Jihad immediately praised the actions of the lone gunmen who was shot dead.

Clearly there are legitimate grievances on both sides.

Israelis live with the reality of rockets lobbing in from Gaza and from southern Lebanon, and from suicide attacks by lone actors using knives, cars or guns.

Moderate Israelis who desperately want to find a path through the perennial violence, lose any purchase when Islamist fanatics blow up shopping malls or mow down commuters in Tel Aviv.

But Israel’s increasingly aggressive actions offer no hope of resolution.

Touring Israel and Palestine in 2014 as a guest of the Australian Jewish Affairs Council, and then again two years later with the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, the question I kept asking people was, how does this end, ever? Nobody even pretended to put forward a workable solution.

This is what happens when division becomes a way of life.

The world cannot be allowed to forget what happened to the Jews of Europe in the middle of the last century.

But neither should it turn a blind eye to Palestinians whose lands have been stolen and human rights abused because of nationality and religion.

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