The Lessons of Auschwitz

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
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There was something at once moving and unsettling in the worldwide outpouring of tribute that accompanied the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this week. Watching the ceremonies creep across the globe, from New York on Monday through Paris and Berlin to the Polish killing ground itself on Thursday, like some slow-motion imitation of the televised, round-the-globe millennium festivities five years ago, one could almost think that the world community had at last taken the lessons of Nazism to heart. But that would be a mistake. As one speaker after another recalled this week, genocide — the deliberate, wholesale slaughter of innocents — did not end in January 1945. It has happened again and again, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and now Sudan. And it will happen again. We have learned how to weep afterward, but little more.

It was stirring to hear the United Nations building resound with the strains of Israel’s national anthem and the Hebrew martyrs’ prayer, El Malei Rahamim, after dozens of world leaders had risen to affirm the evil of antisemitism and salute the State of Israel — “which rose, like the United Nations itself, from the ashes of the Holocaust,” as Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. Listening, one might almost think that Israel’s decades-long isolation was about to end, that the assembled leaders were preparing to address the appalling resurgence of medieval-style Jew-hatred. But that, too, would be a mistake. The week offered a host of reminders — the empty Arab seats in the General Assembly hall, the Muslim boycott of Britain’s national Auschwitz tribute, the release of shocking new figures on anti-Jewish violence in Europe, most of it by young Muslims — that a key part of the world community has not made up its mind about the morality of hating Jews.

The anniversary events were intended as a way of separating the question of antisemitism from the Middle East political maelstrom and restoring it to the larger realm of human rights. The effort was only partly successful. The world’s leaders leaped on the opportunity to declare that — whatever else they might think about, say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — they abhor bigotry and genocide. But, as we knew by week’s end, none of this changed the Middle East balance of power. Israel remains locked in an ugly conflict with its neighbors, a conflict that is increasingly difficult to separate from a worldwide Muslim revolt. The fortunes of the world’s Jews are tied, by choice and destiny, to Israel’s. The mix is highly combustible, and it can’t be wished away.

Still, there were moments here and there that approached the redemptive. In Berlin on Tuesday, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expressed shame at Germany’s deeds and promised that his nation would fulfill its “moral obligation” to keep the memory alive. The day before, at the U.N., Annan pointedly recalled that the evil had not arisen in some dark corner, but in “a cultured and highly sophisticated nation-state in the heart of Europe” — among people, that is, much like those sitting before him. More pointedly, Annan noted that the “world has, to its shame, failed more than once to prevent or halt genocide” since World War II. He listed three incidents. One was Rwanda.

None of Annan’s listeners could have failed to notice that the 1994 Rwandan genocide, one of the worst since the Holocaust, resulted in large part from inaction by U.N. peacekeeping troops under Annan himself. Tying his personal shame, even indirectly, to that of Germany and its ilk was an act of courage. It was also a challenge to the world community to accept responsibility. It’s not enough, he was saying, to point fingers at others. The shame — and the challenge — belongs to each of us.

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