Of all the various events of the last ten days, saying which will have the most lasting effect on our national character—or our nation’s image abroad or its sense of itself at home—would be, to say the very least, challenging. But saying which event of that same time period was the most grotesque is actually simple: surely, it would have to be the spectacle of so many eager to take sides loudly and vehemently in response to President Trump’s brief statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the United-Nations-sponsored memorial day scheduled each year since 2005 for January 27, the day in 1945 that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz.
The statement itself was innocuous enough. (I wonder how many of those who commented on it at such length and with such passion actually read it. Surely some…but also surely not all!) Because it was so brief, I would like to cite it here in its entirety:
It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.
Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest. As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.
In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.
A Martian visiting Earth and being presented with these paragraphs would probably find them moving. A wave of horrific violence, correctly characterized as one characterized by unfathomable depravity, engulfed the world and took the lives of countless innocents. Yet even in the context of such horror, there were those who chose to risk their lives to save at least some who would otherwise have surely been killed. And in response to those two thoughts—the loss of the many and the heroism of the few—our national leader pledges to devote both his years in office—and the rest of his life—to the effort of guaranteeing that the forces of evil never triumph over the powers of good, and that tolerance and love prevail in their place.
The response, however, was not as the President had surely expected or wished, and for one single reason: the omission of the detail that the primary victims of Nazi genocide were Jews, not “just” innocents chosen at random from the universe of the guiltless, struck many as vaguely sinister and not at all the kind of thing reasonably waved away as a function of mere naiveté. And that single fact—the President’s failure to identify the Jewish people by name in his statement—generated the storm of criticism that ensued, some of it thoughtful and some of it beyond shrill.
As the days passed, new details emerged among which the most arresting was that the statement, which I don’t suppose anyone imagined President Trump himself wrote, was actually penned for the President by Boris Epshteyn, once the ten-year-old child of Soviet Jewish émigrés to this country but now a White House special assistant. But the Jewish bona fides of the author’s statement did little to suppress the anger over the perceived insult. In some ways, in fact, it only made people who were already angry even angrier.
There is no doubt that the Jews were not the Nazis’ only victims and the numbers of non-Jewish victims are both numbing and appalling: half a million Serbs, almost two million Polish civilians, almost three million Ukrainians, somewhere between 2 to 3 million Soviet P.O.W.s, a quarter of a million Gypsies, another quarter of a million mentally-handicapped individuals, and hundreds of thousands of others: gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, Catholic priests, and more than thirteen million Soviet citizens (including the 1.2 million people who died during the siege of Leningrad alone between 1941 and 1943). And yet…it is also true that it was only the Jews that were the intended victims of genocide itself, the term used to denote the intentional effort to annihilate an entire people and to leave no survivors at all. And that is where things get confusing: it is surely so that the Germans never intended to murder every single Pole or every Soviet citizen, just to bring those nations to their knees by decimating the population and thus weakening the national resolve to resist German rule. (The situation of the mentally handicapped is more complex, since the Nazis probably did intend eventually to rid the world of mental illness by murdering the entire mentally ill population…and yet that program, called Aktion T4 because it was headquartered at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, was in the end only used to kill German citizens and was not extended into occupied countries. Nor does it seem quite right to characterize mentally ill people as a nation that even could be the victim of genocide.)
And so we are left between a rock and a very hard place: not wishing to sound dismissive or unfeeling with respect to the countless non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, men, women, and children whose suffering was not only real but in many ways and details just as horrific as the misery inflicted on the Jews of Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe…but also not wishing to look past the fact that the Shoah itself—the Nazi war against the Jews—was a unique event both in world history and, needless to say, in Jewish history as well.
The figure of 11 million victims of the Nazis is probably incorrect—there is some evidence that Simon Wiesenthal came up with it himself without relying on the soundest of scholarship—but nitpicking about the number seems unworthy. (For a detailed account of that number and Simon Wiesenthal’s role in devising it, click here.) Nor is it a number without its own place in the history of Shoah memorialization: in establishing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, then-President Jimmy Carter made referenced to the 11 million victims of the Holocaust and there was, as I recall, no particularly vocal response at all. That figure appears all over the place as well, including as recently as last week, on the Facebook page of the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesperson’s unit. And I am personally aware of rabbis who regular reference the eleven-million victims of the Holocaust as though it would be unseemly to note the Jewish victims without folding the others into the batter so as not to appear concerned solely with Jewish suffering. I can follow that line of thinking easily. And the thought of turning the Shoah into some sort of ghoulish contest—and “ghoulish” would be to say the very least—to see who suffered more grievously or in larger numbers at the hands of the Nazis and those who chose to collaborate with them—the thought of entering into that kind of calculus of agony with other victims’ groups to see who wins the right to claim the more horrific fate under the Nazis seems revolting to me.
Under normal circumstances, no one would care. I myself, whose entire adult life has in a sense been guided by the self-imposed need fully and deeply to internalize the details of the Shoah and its deeply monitory message for my own generation and my children’s—even I can’t say with certainty that I would have reacted particularly negatively to the President’s remarks under normal circumstances. It was, I think I would have thought, impressive that the President even took note of Holocaust Remembrance Day, let alone bothered in the course of his first week in office to issue a formal statement in which he pledged to spend both the years of his presidency and the rest of his life after leaving office—a bit over the top, perhaps, but that’s what the man said—combatting the forces of evil exemplified by the Nazis.
But, of course, these are not normal times and we are not operating under normal circumstances. The presence among the White House staff of people who have been openly associated with anti-Semites, the open use of anti-Semitic slogans and graphic memes by the Trump campaign, the President’s own repeated, jarring use of the “America First” slogan in his Inaugural Address without any apparent awareness of the set of memories those words would awaken for an entire generation of Americans and particular for American Jews (for a brief history of the “America First” slogan, click here), and, most of all, the resurgence of the kind of rhetoric with respect to immigration that characterized our nation as its moral perigee during the FDR years when the gates remained shut even to children, let alone to adults, facing unfathomable torment and almost certain death—all of that provides the backdrop against which the President’s statement calls out to be read. And when considered against that background, the statement that the Martian I mentioned above would find both innocuous and moving, feels, to say the very least, unsettling.
I remember visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in 1977 and being shocked to discover that Anne’s Jewishness was left almost completely unmentioned in the displays on exhibit. That was my first experience of the Shoah universalized to the point of meaninglessness, of the effort to make the Shoah about oppression in general and not about anti-Semitism in its most extreme guise, of the notion that there was something at least slightly morally suspect in defining the Shoah as the apotheosis of rabid anti-Semitism and not, far less specifically, as an example of prejudice or extremism. That was my first taste of that specific kind of anti-Jewishness, but not my last. I’d like to think that the President’s remarks were unfortunately but not maliciously phrased, that the omission of any reference to the Jewish people was a mere oversight by a naïve aide, that the larger concept that there even was a declaration is what we should be focusing on…and not on its specific wording. I’d like to think all those things! But whether that option will still be tenable a year from now—that is the real question for Jewish Americans—and for all fair-minded citizens—to contemplate as we move into the first months of the Trump administration.