Holocaust memorial

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As symbols go it’s pretty crashing: a German imperial eagle attacking a seven-metre statue of the Archangel Gabriel, an avatar of Hungary. Recently erected in Budapest to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary, this monument casts the celestial Magyar as the innocent victim of Nazi tyranny.

Nothing controversial here, you may think. Hungary suffered greatly during the Second World War. Dragged into a series of uneasy alliances with Hitler, the regime of Miklós Horthy was coerced into providing cannon fodder for the fight against the Soviet Union. In the face of intense Nazi pressure, it successfully protected its Jewish population for several years, a resistance that was to contribute to its undoing. After seeking an armistice with Stalin, Horthy’s anti-Fascist Prime Minister Miklós Kállay was removed by the Germans and, in March 1944, Hungary was effectively occupied. Under the quisling leadership of Döme Sztójay, the country was torn apart, its cities bombed, its population shattered. Tens of thousands of civilians died, entire communities of Roma were sent to the death camps, half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered.

But there’s another side to the story and it goes something like this: Hungary willingly sided with Hitler in the expectation of territorial gains and regional influence. Horthy’s government happily passed a series of anti-Semitic laws well before the occupation, starting in 1938, followed by mass deportations in 1941, which eventually laid the groundwork for one of the most horrific and efficient genocides of the Holocaust. In just one year, around 70 per cent of the Jewish population was liquidated – all via the industrious efforts of their fellow citizens.

It is to this latter version of history that today’s Hungarian Jewish population subscribes. And this is why the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) voted to boycott 2014’s flagship national commemorations. The Hungarian Government of the Fidesz Party, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, who was reelected at the start of April, is, say Jewish groups, hijacking and revising the story of the Holocaust for its own ends. To Hungary’s Jews, the symbolism of the new monument means one thing only: the refusal of the country to face up to its past crimes. Amid cries of historical revisionism, the official Remembrance Day of the Hungarian Holocaust on 16 April was ignored by Jewish leaders. A poignant display of ownerless shoes by the banks of the Danube was unveiled by politicians and shunned by the members of the community whose tragic fate they represent. Construction of the monument in Budapest, which began just after Orbán’s reelection, was continually disrupted by protests.

Responding to the concerns of Mazsihisz, Orbán sent a letter to its chairman, András Heisler, explaining that what happened to Hungary during the Second World War was a specifically national tragedy, its new statue dedicated to the memory of all victims. He wrote: “The pain of Hungarian Jews is the pain of all the Hungarian people. Although the horrors of the Holocaust were inflicted on our Jewish compatriots and destroyed their lives and assets, it was a common loss and pain for the whole nation.”

Earnest empathy or empty rhetoric? Either way, Hungary’s Jewish population is right to be concerned. It remains a marginal group in a turbulent country. Demographic estimates vary, depending on how people classify their Jewishness, but 100,000 seems to be the upper end of things. Hungary is wracked with racial tension, much of it directed at the Roma, but not excluding Jews. The far-right Jobbik Party – which secured a troubling 20 per cent of the vote in the April elections – makes Marine Le Pen’s Front National look like a bunch of hippies. Openly anti-Semitic, couched in the rhetoric of anti-Zionism, its politicians generally prefer to deny the Holocaust altogether. The conservative Fidesz Party has also been accused of courting far-right interests: the depiction of Hungary as a blameless victim is popular with nationalists. Orbán has more recently denied that the statue is a Holocaust memorial at all, commenting that it was built to mark “the loss of state sovereignty”.

Whatever the motives of Orbán, and whatever the “truths” of Hungary’s role during the Second World War, this spat throws up a raft of fascinating questions about Holocaust memorial, reminding us just how political it can be. Ever since the Nazis first tried to erase it from history, even while perpetrating it, the Holocaust has been the pawn of a welter of different interest groups. Fascists and Islamists seek to deny it; nationalists co-opt it; governments manipulate it to pander to their voters; right-wing columnists invoke it as a paradigm for the failure of appeasement. Some Zionist Israelis take advantage of its memory as an excuse for military belligerence, having originally given it short shrift: in the years following the war the cliché of the degraded, dehumanised Jew sent meekly to the ovens did not fit with the vision of a strong, healthy nation of hard-bitten fighters sweating their blood into the soil. The Palestinians, meanwhile, may wonder why they must continue to suffer for it. To many of them, the Holocaust signals the beginning of the end: an event that precipitated the Nakba, their own dispossession.

If you believe the historian Norman Finkelstein, the Shoah has long been a bona fide business. The preface to his incendiary book The Holocaust Industry is a quotation from Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf: “It seems to me the Holocaust is being sold – it is not being taught.” According to Finkelstein – a scurrilous polemicist whose arguments need serious salination – the modern Holocaust is now little more than “an ideological representation”, invented at some point in the 1960s to service American and Zionist interests. Finkelstein’s numerous critics, meanwhile, argue in turn that the historian is exploiting the Holocaust for his own political ends.

None of this is particularly surprising. All that’s really being said is that history is political. The same goes for the cultural memory of all bloodshed, all atrocities (and happier things too). There is the Armenian genocide (some Turks would prefer inverted commas around the word); the Japanese remembrance of the Second World War (a refusal to heed the rule that history must be written by the victors); truth and reconciliation in Rwanda or South Africa or Cambodia; not to mention the lack of it in Congo or Syria or Sudan. Jewish tradition is still marked by the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD: when the groom stamps on the glass at a Jewish wedding, it is the broken temple that is being symbolised. The rift between Sunnis and Shias harks back to a dispute over the succession to Muhammad during the seventh century.

But we are at an interesting time when it comes to the Shoah: at the crossroads of history, living and received. The surviving victims of the Holocaust are rapidly dying off. A teenage survivor of Auschwitz will now be in her eighties. In twenty years, virtually everyone will be gone. As the present becomes the past, witness testimony cedes to historical spin; compassion for the victims fades to compassion for a memory. As the years continue to roll forward, I wonder where this will leave us.

As an agnostic Jew with a deep but sceptical affection for my heritage, I am particularly interested in where things stand in relation to secular Judaism. I am also interested in what the Holocaust will continue to mean for Jews one, two, three hundred years from now. Of course, it will and should indelibly be a part of Jewish history. We hardly need reminding, of all the many sufferers, which group suffered most, which people came the closest to complete annihilation, of the vast architecture of industrial murder constructed to complete the task. But I wonder where and when, if ever, the sense of particular victimhood accorded by the Shoah ends.

This is an uncomfortable question and I don’t for a second mean to undermine the fears of Jewish communities who still perceive around them echoes of the Holocaust today, who witness desecrated Jewish graves, or require armed guards outside their synagogues and schools, who hear anti-Semitic hatred dressed up as indignation at the Israeli government, who see swastikas waved at Gaza peace marches or who are handed leaflets by men in balaclavas demanding that they register or emigrate, as recently occurred in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. It is hard to put victimhood to one side when others insist on assuming the role of persecutors.

But there is also something troublingly seductive about past suffering, as the recent furore in Hungary has demonstrated. A tragic history can be a useful card to play. And it is one with which Judaism is particularly familiar.

As in many religions, the idea of victimhood has a powerful presence within Judaism. It does so for depressingly obvious reasons: as a minority, diaspora people living in fickle, sometimes openly hostile lands, Jews have for a large part of their history had a legitimate claim to the status of victims. The spiritual yearning for something wrested from them – an absence symbolised by Jerusalem but also linked to wider questions surrounding human fallibility and transience – has always been central to the faith; the more immediate prospect of racist laws and murderous intention has often been central to the culture.

Long before the Nazi eugenicists, long before the pogroms and the Inquisition, even in the glory days of King Solomon and David, Jewish life was under threat. The foothold in the Holy Land was absolute only so long as it lasted, and this insecurity was absorbed into the faith. The basis of the greatest Jewish stories – of Passover, of Chanukah – involves harassment, flight and triumph. As the saying goes, here’s the crux of every Jewish festival: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”

And the flipside of what has often been called this “lachrymose” view of Jewish history is that it brings people together. It makes you feel special, that you are a part of something that requires protecting. At its best, this encourages empathy, tolerance of others. Religion can be very good when it comes to suffering. Helping the poor, the sick, the stranger, is central to many of the world’s major faiths. But at its worst it can create a backs-to-the-wall cynicism, a belligerence born of righteous fear and fury. It is exactly this sense of victimhood that has found such an effective outlet in Islamism, born of the sense of a culture under threat – and the need to defend it at all costs. It is exactly this sense of a culture under threat that feeds nationalist propaganda resulting in the persecution of minority groups. Ultra-Zionists and the thugs of the Jobbik Party have more in common than they might like to admit.

But back to the Holocaust. What does its cult of victimhood mean to me? Where does a “third generation” secular British Jew fit in? My maternal grandparents were refugees from Berlin. My grandmother lost her only sister to Auschwitz. Proof of her existence is now a family heirloom in the form of a letter from the Red Cross. My paternal grandfather lost countless family members in Poland. The Holocaust, then, was very present for my parents, especially for my mother. She grew up surrounded by its repercussions, its neuroses. And it was present for me too, in many ways.

My Hebrew teacher had a tattoo from Auschwitz on his forearm. So did a relative in Paris. I know countless first-hand tales of escapes across night-time borders, children trekking over mountains, near misses, hideouts in the Berlin U-Bahn; tales of appalling suffering; and tales of the many more who didn’t make it out. My great-uncle and his family were thrown off a boat; the plan had been to shoot them but their executioners, so the legend goes, were instructed to save the bullets. These were the tales of my childhood.

The Holocaust books I read as a youngster seemed in some ways to apply to me, or at least to people like me: I Am David by Anne Holm; When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr; Maus by Art Spiegelman; The Diary of Anne Frank. There was something enticing – no point pretending otherwise – in the childish fear inspired by these stories, the sense of dodging fate, dodging history, the fear that it could, it would have been me, but it couldn’t, it wouldn’t, because this was 1990s England not 1930s Poland. It was the same fear-in-safety that attracts children to gruesome fairy tales.

As I emerged into adulthood, my interest in the literature of the Holocaust was stoked by the writing of authors such as Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, Imre Kertész. My motives were more complex than the ones I had in childhood, and often I read for the quality of the prose, for what the books had to say about the human predicament in general; but surely the underlying attraction was a perceived closeness to the history. And I wonder whether there isn’t an element of fetishisation to this. Why the Nazis and not Stalin or Pol Pot? It seems so unoriginal. How, I wonder, does the Holocaust really accord with my lived experience of 21st-century privilege? How much closer is it to me than to my non-Jewish peers?

It would be nice to believe in the words – if not the motives – of Orbán, that “the pain of Hungarian Jews is the pain of all the Hungarian people”, and that the horrific memory of the Holocaust is something the whole of humanity can begin to share in equally. It would be nice if we didn’t feel the need to jostle for position as hereditary Victims in Chief: Jews over Roma; Roma over Poles; Poles over Hungarians; Hungarians over Germans. And if it’s inevitable that we do so, only 70 years after Auschwitz, will this always be the case? Will we still be arguing about ownership in 500 years’ time? Or a thousand? Will national governments still be indulging in these games of one-upmanship? Will Jews eventually make another culinary festival out of Holocaust Remembrance Day? They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!

I question my own motives underpinning this piece. Why did I feel the need to mention my own family history? Was it to establish my credentials? To stake a claim? Will my children be able to do the same? Will theirs? I recently joked with a friend that every family, every culture should be allowed three generations to work through any specific tragedy. Three generations, in which the third generation has personal knowledge of the first. Any more than that is an indulgence. I’m no longer sure this is a joke.

There’s a great line from the Palestinian author Mourid Barghouti about the cult of victimhood: “Start your story with ‘secondly’, and the world will be turned upside-down.” What he means by this is that every righteous victim acting in self-protection becomes the aggressor when we forget what came before. The second punch becomes the first punch. Defence becomes attack. It’s an idea that rings particularly true of the Israel–Palestine situation, which has always thrived on martyrdom: who was there first; who did what to whom, and when.

It’s easy to talk about victimhood when you yourself have never been a victim. And so I’m wary of making claims for those who have known real suffering, who have very real memories of very real horrors, who harbour fears of these returning. But this is also why I’m wary of governments and communities and individuals who play the victim card when it isn’t theirs to play, when it comes to events that happened so many years ago, when their only real claim is a fading cultural memory. Not forgetting is vitally important. So too is learning to move on.